Travelling Pt 2
So we've landed in Quito, and me and my new-found independent-female-solo-traveller-confidence headed off into the city to find lunch. If you're ever making a stop in Quito, please visit Los Tres Gatos. It's a cafe/library, and the staff were super helpful in finding me a book I could read to help improve my Spanish, not to mention a gorgeous lunch. I say confidence, it was a few blocks from the hotel and I used Google Maps, but still, baby steps. I met my new group, with whom I'd be spending the next 2 weeks, in our hotel in Quito. I have to admit, I was a little miffed after my 5 days of total freedom to be in a tour group that was so much more structured than what I had been used to. In hindsight, I wouldn't have experienced half of the wonderful things that I did should I have gone at it alone, and my stingy budget wouldn't have allowed for the luxuries included in my prepaid tour.
First stop of many was Banos. Nestled in between 2 mountains, this little city has so much personality and life (and good food, but I quickly learnt to get used to that everywhere). Me and new roomie Laura had already spent our first night together in Quito, so we plonked our stuff in our room and joined the group for an orientation walk. It didn't take long to find our bearings in the city once we learnt where the main square was, and the group soon split to do our own thing. Here, I had the most incredible homemade empanada, it was so filling and yet I could've eaten them all day. This was also where I tried my first taste of aji, a spicy sauce that is on every table in Ecuador and varies slightly each time- already I was loving it here! I then met back up with Laura, and we decided to take advantage of the very well priced massages. When we asked the lady whether we could be massaged at the same time, we didn't necessarily mean in the same room, but it's definitely a good bonding exercise.
On day 2 there was a number of activities that we could choose to book, I decided to go canyoning. What a brilliant experience! My instructor, Pedro, met me at the hotel and told me the wonderful news that I was the only one booked on the tour that day! I got kitted out and, after a short tutorial, took on my first waterfall. There was 5 in total, the last being a 48m drop! Pedro encouraged me to jump, he had control of my ropes, and let me free fall for a little bit before lowering me down to the bottom. I was out canyoning for less than 2 hours, but it really didn't feel rushed and I was quite glad that I could get showered up and still have the rest of the day to enjoy Banos. A small group of us took a walk up to a viewpoint. It was incredibly steep, climbing altitude quite quickly, but it was worth the view once we reached the top (photo above). We were told that Banos is settled in between two mountains, but it felt a bit surreal to see it like that. Coming down the hill was much more enjoyable!
The following day was when we hopped back on the bus to leave Banos, and make our way into the jungle. On the way, we stopped at Casa del Arbol, which is well worth the visit even if you don't care about getting your Instagram pics! We were lucky enough to have clear skies for a moment so we could see the spectacular view below, but it didn't take long for the fog to catch up with us. The Casa del Arbol is a small treehouse with swings that go over the side of the mountain, and 2 extra swings have been built since the area has grown in popularity. Aside from the photos and the views, the swings are also just really fun! At the spot, there is also a beautiful little garden and a small zip line. We left really early to get there by recommendation of our guide, Franky, and it was well worth doing because we had the whole place to ourselves. We also made a few stops at various beautiful waterfalls, but none of them compared to El Pailon de Diablo. I've never seen a waterfall of that size up close before, and I couldn't believe the huge volume of water being constantly thrown from the side of the mountain. Despite the incredible noise, it was really relaxing to watch the water crash to the bottom, spray, and then calmy wash away as if nothing was there.
Amazon Rainforest Homestay
We then arrived at the part of the tour that I had been most looking forward to, a homestay in the Amazon rainforest. It serves me right for not really doing my research but, at first, I was a little disappointed to learn that we would sort of be on the outskirts of the forest, so we wouldn't be spotting any wildlife. I threw my rucksack on once again and walked into the forest with the rest of the group. Laura and I had our eye on one of the 'newer' rooms and were quick to bagsy our spot (sorry everyone!), and it was worth it. The rooms were, of course, very basic, with no electricity and a short walk downstairs to the loos and showers, but it was beautiful. We had hammocks on the balcony area which gave us a lovely view and, if it wasn't for the sound of the new road construction, you'd have no idea that the city was so close. Whilst we didn't actually see any wildlife aside from bugs and the family's dogs, the animals sure made their presence known at night- it was a brilliant sound of chirps, hollers, and buzzing that reminded me just how teeny we are in this huge world.
Franky introduced us to Delphine, Estella and their family and staff. Eddie, a staff member at the lodge, was so enthusiastic and really keen to learn more English. He is so stellar at his job that you can tell he enjoys. We donned our long socks and wellies, with a lot of complaining as it was incredibly hot, and followed the hilarious double-act into the forest. Our first stop was to see the spectacular view of the river and I began to feel much more like I was in the jungle. The dense trees provided a substantial cover from the hot sun so, whilst I was still sweating, I was much cooler and able to fully enjoy my environment. We retraced our steps back to the road and crossed into the bush on the other side to the 'spa'. We didn't walk far before Eddie was on his knees, digging in a hole that he'd definitely dug in before. He dragged out piles of grey clay and tossed it around in his hands a bit to make it more malleable and less slushy. Franky explained that whilst this is the clay used for making pots and other ceramics, it's also full of minerals and is wonderful for your skin! So, with artistic grace, Eddie and Franky got to work as beauticians. After a good laugh, we all headed back to the road to let our face masks dry a bit more in the sun, but Franky and Eddie hadn't emerged from the bush. A few more moments of waiting and out they came, covered in clay, leaves, and ears made of bark. We laughed, took a photo, and made our way back to the lodge. Hidden behind the trees next to the bedrooms was a flow of natural water that had been blocked in with a makeshift dam to make a lovely pool. I ran and changed into my bikini and took a dip, washing off my face mask. My skin did truly feel lovely underneath! The water felt so clean and cool after walking around and sweating in the intense jungle heat.
My next few days were full of culture, learning, trying new things, and finally some downtime to sit in a hammock and read my book! Delphine, the man of the house, showed us how the indigenous people use fruits to create paints and demonstrated different facial markings on each of us, and topped it off with woven grass crowns. The symbol painted on me represented Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, which is the main belief of those who live in the jungle. We learnt more about Pacha Mama, and the energy of the jungle, and would continue to learn more throughout the day. Delphine then took us on a walk through the jungle area surrounding his land, showing us various plants and their medicinal uses. I took a bite of a bark that is used as an anaesthetic, and my tongue began to tingle and go numb, leaving a less than pleasant taste. I also resisted putting a lump of red-pink quartz in my pocket - the river was littered with beautiful rocks - as Eddie demonstrated panning for gold. We learnt which plants can be used to make fibres and ropes, and we got a very impressive demonstration from Delphine who was able to shimmy up a tree trunk in no time, despite being in his 60s. We asked Franky (who was now acting as translator) why Delphine would make bird calls as we walked, and I was thrilled to learn that he and his family are doing all they can to encourage native wildlife back into the area after learning about their impact on the environment.
Another dip in the pool was needed to wash our faces and make the most of the sun peeking out after the rainy morning, before heading back together to learn to make chocolate from the raw cacao fruit and shoot arrows with a blowgun. Dinner consisted of more plantain, which I had come to like, a gorgeous vegetable soup with popcorn in, and my favourite aji of the whole trip. Oh, and how could I forget, I had my bad energy cleansed! As it got darker, we gathered again for Delphine to tell us more about the indigenous culture and about their most important yet secretive position, the shaman. Part of this lesson was a short demonstration of a ritual that is supposed to cleanse the person of their bad energy, and I was quite keen to be rid of all of mine! It was a weird experience but quite a special one, and I'm glad they left out the unpleasant parts such as Ayahuasca, which has been known to give tourists terrible tummy trips as opposed to psychedelic healing experiences, and is no longer allowed to be given to visitors. That night the rainforest truly lived up to its name, the sound of the rain on our metal roof was deafening, Laura and I couldn't hear one another from across our room.
Inevitably, it was soon time to leave our homestay, but we had one more activity to go- a bike ride! I was apprehensive about this as I hadn't ridden a bike in years, and my last memory of it isn't a pleasant one, but it is true that you never forget (after being reminded of what the gears were for) and I loved the feeling of gliding down the smooth roads. Halfway along we stopped at a playpark to play some games, but it looked as though we were interrupting the schools break time, as a group of primary school-aged children watched on from the benches. One member of our group, Robin, rounded up those who were interested to join in, they were so sweet! After cracking the kids up with our antics, we continued on to where we were having a light lunch, but this was a bit more of an adventure than the relaxing ride I'd been enjoying. Uneven terrain, mud, and intense heat made for a bit of a challenging track, but it made the empanadas that were waiting for us taste even better.
From the depths of the jungle up to the mountains, our next stop was Termas de Papallacta. For many of the group, the sudden change in altitude and temperature didn't go unnoticed, but this was easy to ignore once we saw where we were staying. We entered a lovely building and were directed to our lodges, with hot springs right outside the door. We had 2 to chose from of varying temperatures, one for me was unbearably hot but well-loved by others! Time flew by as we lounged around and were inevitably late for dinner. It was Sue's birthday, and it was a spectacular place to celebrate it! I treated her to a mini makeover and Franky had arranged a surprise dessert for her after dinner. There is a potato soup that we had seen everywhere in Ecuador, with cheese and avocado, and I had been keen to try it. It was absolutely delicious and I went on to have several more during my time in Ecuador! Due to a landslide that we passed on our way to Papallacta (a very unnerving drive!) the road is only open at certain times of the day which meant, to our dismay, we had to leave this little haven early in the morning to get back to Quito in time. After some pouting from the group, Frank worked magic again and rearranged our travel, so we were all able to fill up at the breakfast buffet and have one last dip before getting back on the bus.
My first week in Ecuador, was a busy one, and things showed no sign of slowing down! My tour was actually two one-week tours pushed together, so we said goodbye to Franky and hello to Fredy to start the next part of the adventure. I'll meet you there in part 3!