Hello from a bus in Ecuador, currently travelling with my friend Hiske from Isinliví to Quito- having spent an incredible two days amongst the WiFi-less hills after completing a 4.5 hour hike around them yesterday.
You may or may not remember Hiske from my travels in November, so I’ll remind you. Hiske and I met in Bogotá, the first day of my world trip! I’d managed to stop panic attacking about Colombia in an airport toilet and had arrived at my hostel in the town. I’d noticed a girl arriving by herself and thought If I was her, I’d like to see a friendly face so I grinned and started chatting to her. We spent a week together in Colombia and by pure luck managed to coincide our Ecuador plans so we could travel again together.
Having travelled Colombia, Peru, parts of Chile, returned to Colombia, rushed through many night buses to Ecuador, I spent my first few days exploring Quito, learning about the history of the city and how and why they changed from the Sucre to the Dollar in 2000. I would absolutely recommend Free Walking Tour, Quito for one of the most interesting descriptions of history I’ve heard so far in my travels.
On the 12th March (12th! Where the hell is time going??) I arrived in Banos, after first being directed to the Quito’s bus terminal toilets instead of the Banos ticket offices (Baños means toilet in Spanish) and had an interesting experience with a cute, eyeless old man sitting next to me, who then proceeded to ask me for money for something he flashed in my face (piece of paper, nothing worse thank god). Being the penniless person I am, I didn’t have much to give him, but he didn’t have an eye so he obviously couldn’t see that. Despite a man shaking his head indicating I shouldn’t give this eyeless man any money, I rooted around for some change and could only find 10 cents – which even I know isn’t going to buy you a banana let alone hospital treatment – so I started getting abused and asked for more, which made my bus slightly more interesting before the eyeless man left.
Just to give you an idea of how my time line is looking right now, I have 4 weeks left of South America. This may sound a lot, but having overstayed my welcome in Colombia waiting on packages to arrive from England, I have to make sure I’m in São Paulo for my flight to India – and I still want to explore Bolivia and tackle parts of Brazil! With flights costing more than it would for a return to London, the only affordable route that made sense from Colombia was flying from Cartagena to Cali, taking a night bus to Ipiales, crossing the border to Ecuador, taking a taxi from the border to Tulcán and then a BUS to Quito. 2 weeks in Ecuador – which I had wanted to travel earlier but had left too late before my Machu Pichu trip in Peru and had to skip – before taking three night buses to Northern Peru to complete hikes I didn’t have time to do in January. Then it’s all rush rush through the places I’ve already travelled in Peru to somehow arrive at either Bolivia’s border or see if I should just go straight into Brazil – fun right?! Well yes, it’s actually all going very much to plan and has been extremely fun so far.
* EDIT * I am currently stuck on a sofa, ill in Quito and therefore, embracing the possibility that getting to Brazil in less than three weeks is going to be a horrific rush, but what is life other than one big HORRIFIC RUSH. Jokes, but still, should be an interesting, blog-able experience nonetheless
I arrived in Banos to greet Hiske/jump on Hiske and meet her friend Tarek who asked me if I was going to spend time in the Amazon. Originally this was not part of my plan because a) I didn’t have a lot of time in Ecuador and thought I should just do all the touristy things in Banos instead of anything else b) I was skint and had heard it was around £300 for a tour and c) I was scared of tarantulas, poisonous snakes and Malaria – if Cheryl Cole can get Malaria, I’ve got no chance. However, upon looking at the things to do in Banos, my gut told me to skip the tourist attractions (slight FOMO yet again, but then again, waterfalls are everywhere, I didn’t necessarily need to see them in this town) search around for a good deal and do something extremely different – and that’s EXACTLY what we did.
After struggling to pack my backpack which seems to be the norm in every hostel and planning our route whilst drinking numerous coffees in Honey – a great cafe in Banos with fantastic muffins I can only gaze and nibble bits of from Hiske (gluten free allergy guys) we planned to have a day in Banos, before leaving to a place called Tena and it was THERE that our Amazon adventure would begin.
We visited “The Swing at the End of the World” at La Casa Del Arbol, 2,600m above sea level for an Instagrammable photo naturally and an adrenaline hit which became more of an adrenaline overdose when the swing pusher realised he’d matched with Hiske on Tinder due to me taking her phone and sending stupid messages to everyone. He decided to push me so high I was absolutely certain I’d sent him the worst kind of penis meme possible, jumping up and down like a crazy man to make feel like I was swinging out of my swing – these swings have a belt as a safety harness only loosely attached by a clip so I had reason to be slightly worried about falling out..
We had lunch, accidentally got my eyebrows shaved when I’d asked for them to get waxed and felt too embarrassed to let her know halfway through shaved eyebrow that this was not the treatment I was after, met Tarek and took a bus that afternoon from Banos to Tena, where we’d hoped to book onto an Amazon tour. The only problem was that when we eventually arrived in Tena – which by the way, I would NOT recommend actually visiting, it’s a slightly creepy town- was that we saw the tours to the Amazon were too pricey. As we settled into our hostel, down some dark creepy alley, with some extremely interesting characters that we met there, I found a tour that looked great from the description and the reviews for half the price of the others! Run by a company called Akangau Jungle Expeditions, we decided at 10pm to try and call them so we could book onto a 3 day, 2 night tour starting the following morning at 8.30am. We stated our food requirements (more like my food requirements) and excitedly prepared our backpack for the next adventure.
After arriving at the office for 8.30am and being given our sexy knee high rain boots for the jungle, we went to eat breakfast quickly where of course I made friends with an Ecuadorian baby called Rachel whose cheeks were chubbier than a chipmunk’s, and then we drove off to our first starting point.
We took a motorised boat through the rivers to start our first mini hike of the Amazon (I say mini, it was probably a couple of hours) being introduced to different trees and plants and learning about their medicinal purposes and spiritual meanings. One of these trees was called El Pene del Diablo, otherwise known as the Penis Tree which single ladies circle in order to get pregnant. And I must say, they were very pretty tree branch penises. Our tour guide Ivan was also clearly half human, half animal, as he was able to make lots of different monkey/bird/anything sound to communicate with them. Needless to say, my version was not the same.
We took the boat to a Cacao farm to learn about the entire process of making chocolate which was amazing. We were shown the Cacao fruit growing off the trees, tried the sweet inside covering of the cacao bean as well as the contrasting flavour of the cacao bean itself which was extremely bitter. Taking our Cacao goods back, we were painted in traditional tribal paint and then took to peeling the beans, before practising on the grinding machine and finishing the process by cooking the now crushed cacao mixture into a smooth, incredible dark chocolate flavoured cream with some sugar – to try with bread and banana. SO GOOD. I should open my own cacao farm I swear.
After our chocolate making experience, we took the motorised boat to another part of the river where we were left to explore the AmaZOOnico Rescue Centre, made up of volunteers who help feed the animals who have been rescued and rehabilitated to health before being released. This included monkeys, different types of birds (parrots that I wasn’t allowed to teach swear words and who kept screeching really loudly), birds who had had their wings broken by previous owners to stop them flying off, hippo looking pig things who shit in their own bathing pool to hide the scent (very clever) and giant snakes who had their teeth ripped out by previous owners as well.
Our next activity (yes, we did a LOT in one day) was visiting a small community where we could practise the game of blowing *okay I don’t remember the name of the game and stop being dirty* but it was LOADS of fun and clearly my aim was good because I hit the target every time hooray!
We headed to the lodge we were staying, crossing rivers and hiking up numerous stairs (with Ivan carrying all the food on his back) to eventually reach our destination. After my absolutely terrible accommodation experience in the Colca Canyon with my supposed “cabin”/mud shack shit hole, I was not expecting much but what we were greeted with was basic and beautiful. Wooden cabins with comfortable beds, hammocks, no electricity so the lodge was littered with candles and we lit the fire whilst we relaxed for dinner and went to visit Sharon the Gigantic Tarantula spider who was chilling by the kitchen. Dinner was fab – seeing as I was still scarred from the Colca Canyon and their lack of food also – they provided a perfect dinner of meat, rice and salad before we went to sleep.
We woke up at 8am to a fresh breakfast of fruit, juice, coffee and eggs, before being given sticks to hike with and continued with our adventure. What had been great was that there was only Hiske, Tarek and I in this particular group so it felt like a personalised private tour. We had this until the following day when other people were joining us, and we set off for the depths of the Amazon , again being shown plants, fruits to eat, fruits to not eat and how exactly how many hours of excrutiating pain you’d be in if you ignored his advice, as well as more trees with medicinal purposes and different leaves that smelt like mint and lemon. Our guide I soon realised was even more clever than I thought, kind, fun and creative, making animals and hats out of leaves and making us laugh with flowers that looked like huge lips, telling us to take a selfie!
We came across a tree called Arbol de Dragon whose Sangre / liquid within the tree was nicknamed Dragon’s blood for its healing properties and both Hiske put some on wounds and irritated skin which helped immensely. The texture of this liquid is sticky but if you rub it fast it creates a creamy mixture. Just like magic.
After climbing for two and a half hours, we reached the Mirador (viewpoint) and looked out on the beauty we saw in front of us. The utter vastness of the rainforest took my breath away, and I noticed small rivers in the distance running through the abundance of greenery.
We hiked back for another hour and a half, trying not to itch and imagine the amount of creepy bugs that were now sticking to our skin. The Amazon Rainforest is extremely humid, even when it’s raining and you wake up in a cold sweat which just continues to a warm sweat throughout the day.. I, of course was trying to not think about the malaria I was preventing taking my Malarone which was and has been giving me the most vivid dreams including me dating Leonardo DiCaprio who then told me about his drug and woman obsession – lol, trippy much?
After we ate lunch, another incredible meal, we relaxed in hammocks for an hour before hiking the Ruta de Sueños. At this point I was very much not bothered to hike anymore. For one? I smelt. Two, I’m reading an inspiring book about embracing being single and I thought in that moment that was more important than doing yet another hike when I just wanted to relax. However, one thing I’ve noticed, is the things I can’t be bothered doing are usually the BEST part of my trip – and I was not disappointed. We hiked to a beautiful stream, where we were told to say thank you for Mother Earth, gathering the water in our mouth and spraying it neatly out of our mouths/ spitting it out and choking on the water if you’re me. We waded through the river with cavernous stone walls, fresh water up to our chests and each of us were silent, getting lost in the absolute, natural beauty that was surrounding us. Ivan was constantly telling us about how the river waters were energy for the people swimming in them and getting into the waterfalls, and I couldn’t agree more / also possible energy coming from the coldness of the water shocking my always badly circulated body.
* PHOTOS TO COME SHORTLY WHEN TAREK SENDS THEM TO ME FROM HIS GO PRO DO NOT STRESS *
Hiking back, soaking wet yet filled with a new excitement, we returned for dinner, met the rest of the group and then had a small night tour of the surrounding jungle, looking at different types of insects, spiders, bugs and animals – letting us know how many hours of pain we’d be in again, if we got bitten.
In fact it started to make me laugh, so with every spider we came across the conversation went a bit like this:
Ivan: Here is a spider. VERY poisonous
Emily: How many hours?
Ivan: Of what? Pain?
Ivan: 3 hours of pain
And so it repeated. The exact same conversation. And EXACTLY the same amount of time for pain. All jokes aside, Ivan was extremely knowledgeable about everything. We had found out that when he was little, he used to walk through the jungle and get taught about the properties of different plants, herbs and animals from his family. He had this incredible talent of hearing a sound in the distance, his ears prickling and face turning towards the direction it had come from, and creating a sound that mimicked it exactly. Monkey sounds, bird sounds, almost ANY sound, moving his mouth and tongue in crazy ways to create this almost music and to have the animals respond back in the same way. He told us he was making the sounds of a baby monkey in need of help one day, to get the other monkey to respond back to figure out where it was to rescue it. Needless to say, Hiske and I were not of the same talent.
The third and final day was an extremely strange, emotional one for me. We started hiking to one of our final activities, a spot uphill perhaps 25 minutes away, where we’d take a cab to a national park and hike to see some incredible waterfalls.
Amongst the group that had joined us were three hilarious British girls, around my age and a mother and daughter from America. Whilst the others hiked ahead, this mother and I were a little behind talking and hiking with our sticks. It was quite muddy and slippery, and I was telling her that it was incredible she was in the Amazon, sharing this experience with her daughter. It’s something I think I’ll always appreciate slightly more than others, and look at wistfully, as I have never really had that opportunity with my mum. As we continued, she asked about the longevity of my trip and if my mother was also going to visit me. I replied that she couldn’t as she has to look after my Dad and she asked if he was ill, and I told her that he had MS to which she replied, oh yes me too! This particular lady had Relapsing Remitting MS, which meant some days she had bad days, but was on medication to help and her MS was not bad enough for her to not travel. She asked about my Dad’s stage and I responded that he had Secondary Progressive and didn’t budge from the wheelchair but that he was now taking medicinal cannabis which was helping with his pain. She told me about how medication has got better for Relapsing Remitting MS and she’d also got over a tumour scare but she takes it all in her stride. This particular moment was extremely difficult for me, as I could feel a familiar dull pain start to stifle me in my chest, which I was trying to ignore.
When we arrived at the top, we took a cab to the waterfalls, and Hiske and I told it would be great to travel in the back, until we got absolutely soaked and hit by rain and hail stones. We arrived at the park, put back on our sexy knee high boots and started walking. Well, I lie, we walked for three minutes before we realised, we’d be in fact bouldering and CLIMBING over steep, slippery rocks to explore the waterfalls, dumping our treasured sticks that had been with us throughout the entirety of our Amazon adventure (I’ll never forget you Susan the Stick!) and reaching the waterfalls, holding onto ropes for dear life and rocks that kept moving, whilst also watching where we were putting our hands so we didn’t accidentally place them on a stinging ant like the American girl a day before.
* PHOTOS TO COME, HURRY UP TAREK *
We eventually reached all the waterfalls and then were told we had to go back the SAME way. Now, with it being extremely hard to climb wet rocks upwards, how do you think we felt about climbing down on them? Ivan pointed his finger at Hiske and I for a basic harness attached to a stone as he knew how useless we were from spending the last few days with us, and after about five minutes of me getting stuck on a rock unable to place my foot anywhere and holding onto my rope for dear life, I eventually made it to the bottom and we continued slowly back to the beginning where we then feasted on a huge lunch of salad, sauces, nachos and wraps.
I’m not sure whether it was down to the effects of Malarone, tiredness from hiking, or just because I was wet and cold but I started feeling really sad. The amazing thing about my friendship with Hiske is that it’s an extremely open and honest one. We can tell eachother anything, we support eachother through everything and due to both of our extremely sensitive personalities, we can tell eachother if we’ve pissed eachother off and apologise straight away. Hiske knows about some of my personal struggles and as I tried to casually tell her I was feeling low – possibly because I was witnessing someone with MS enjoying herself and the time with her daughter and pushing herself to the max whilst I’ve never and can never have that with my Dad – I burst into tears at the lunch table and Hiske took me aside to give me a big hug. I was explaining through sobs that I was so happy for this mother achieving her dreams but how I just couldn’t seem to not get upset and Hiske, with her arm around me told me it was okay. It was understandable to yearn for the same experience that this daughter was having with her mother for myself and that I wasn’t stupid or silly for letting myself feel.
Feeling better for talking to a friend, Tarek gave me a massive hug when I returned and we got into the car to our final destination – yet MORE waterfalls. It’s important to mention that at this point, I wasn’t feeling like going, I just wanted to be by myself but I decided I’d got this far in the trip and I would just take it easy. We arrived at our final destination, taking a less than secure feeling cable car across the flowing ravine and walked to the waterfalls which were BEAUTIFUL. Once again, I was so happy to have gone against my head and carried on with the activities. The water was cold to swim in and I watched various members of my group jumping off a massive rock into the icy water below. I’m the type of person who will usually do the thing that scares them the most to try and get rid of that fear, but the fear of heights complete with the fear of jumping into icy water and drowning/hitting my head on a rock or ANYTHING and drowning was trying to weigh me down. In these types of situations, all I need is a teeeeeny bit of encouragement and Tarek was the one to provide that, reminding me how much I’d regret it if I didn’t jump and I knew he was right. Shaking massively, I think I even spotted a look of fear/incredibilty on Irvan’s face as I barely made it up the slippery rock, hanging on for dear life onto a rope to get to the top, looking at the green water below me trying to not shake myself furiously off the rock. And then? I was frozen. I couldn’t do it, I was looking at the people below me cheering me on, Tarek next to me telling me I could do it, and then I looked again below me at the height, trying to desperately not think of all the possible rocks I could hit my head on. I KNEW it was deep enough to jump, 6 people did it ahead of me, but what if I jumped in a … shallow bit? Didn’t jump far enough and hit my head off the rock I was jumping off and died? THEN the magical words of “fuck it” came up, as it usually eventually does in these situations, and I stared intently ahead, thinking of my Grandad watching me, urging me on, strongly above my head and jumped in, as hard as I could, my bikini practically falling off as I hit the water, all the air being pushed out of my lungs with the sheer surprise of the icy water. As I came up for air, shaking from exhilaration, pure disbelief at doing something that scared me shitless and the coldness of the river, I managed to get up on a rock, heart beating hard. I was pumped on adrenaline from both that experience and also the crying I had done just hours earlier. I didn’t even know what to feel, from being that emotional and that high – it was crazy.
After around an hour, we got into our wet clothes again, and made our way back to the awaiting truck, taking the unsteady cable car once more, and started our return to Tena. It was now time to say goodbye.