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Carnival in the Amazon: waterfalls and caves

Puerto Misahuallí, Cascada de Latas, Jumandy cave system, Tena and Baños


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The first excursion we went on today was to a waterfall trail in the forest a short taxi ride from Puerto Misahuallí. We'd packed up our stuff and left it at the Reception hut before we went, because we had to check out by 12pm, when we knew we'd be at the waterfalls.

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The trail followed a river, passing some smaller waterfalls before reaching the biggest one at the end. There were several swimming holes on the way but despite the humidity we saved ourselves for the one at the end in front of the big waterfall. It took at least 45 minutes to get there. Twice we had to wade through the river rather perilously but luckily nobody fell in! They were at sections where it was more like a stream than a river, but the water was still very fast-running. We'd borrowed wellies from our accommodation so we didn't get wet.

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Once we arrived at the big waterfall we got into the pool in front of it as quickly as possible. The water was lovely, cool and refreshing.

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I floated on my back for a while and the view of the overhanging vegetation and rocks reminded me of the overhanging cathedral wall and vegetation at the Grand Hotel pool in Guayaquil. After a while I swam through the waterfall and stood up behind it. The force of the water drumming on my head and shoulders was tremendous.

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To get out, we retraced our steps; on the way I saw a couple of giant black & electric blue butterflies but they evaded all my attempt to photograph them.

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When we left the waterfalls we caught a taxi truck; it already had passengers in the front and back seats so we climbed into the open air back section. It reminded me of the only other time I've sat out on the back of a truck, in Koh Tao in Thailand.

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Once the taxi truck had dropped us off in Misahuallí town centre we had to run the gauntlet of foam again. I walked tactically so avoided most of it, but others weren't so lucky. They didn't stop at foam either, as 'E' found out with the yellow paint that got thrown on her...

As soon as we arrived back we only had time to give back the wellies we'd borrowed and pick up our bags before we got another taxi truck to our next destination... the Jumandy cave system. This entrance to the site has turned into a local tourism hub with restaurants and an open air swimming pool using riverwater, so before we entered the caves themselves we had some late lunch at one of the restaurants. I had an old favourite, seco de pollo, and a blackberry milkshake. A man with a wooden leg stumped past our table while we were eating - only the second time I've seen a person with a wooden leg in real life, rather than metal or fibreglass (whatever is usually used in the UK).

The caves excursion was exciting. Our guide was an indigenous local doing a job that apparently generations of his family had done before him. He said that when the Spaniards first arrived centuries ago, the Jumandy people hid in these caves for five months to escape them. He spoke only Spanish but luckily the others translated for me.

There was a river running through a lot of the cave system so we had to wade a lot.

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Right near the beginning there was a section where we had to wade up to our middles. Just beyond that was a short section where a line had been strung across and the water was too deep to touch the bottom so we had to pull ourselves across using the line instead. The others had given their valuables to the guide to carry across in a bag, but my camera was too big to fit. I had however cunningly put it in a plastic bag in advance, to keep it dry, so all I needed to do was tie a knot in it and zip the whole thing in my handbag. I ended up hanging my handbag round my neck and then pulling myself up and along to raise the bag up as much as I could. Only one corner of the bag got wet and the plastic bag didn't get wet at all. That was a very adrenalin-filled and exciting 20 seconds! It was like an exercise at the gym but with most of my body submersed in water and with the knowledge that if my grip on the rope broke then my camera might get soaked.

We had been warned beforehand that we would get very wet on the cave trip, so in our group we were all wearing our bikinis underneath our clothes and I was wearing my board shorts instead of trousers.We'd kept all these on after swimming at the waterfalls earlier.

Later on in the tour we had to squeeze through some very narrow sections of tunnel; we also passed by some stalagmites and stalactites.

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Near the end we came across a waterfall with a small pool in front of it - the guide said the water in it is considered lucky - whether true or not, it certainly was refreshing! It was wonderful. It felt slightly surreal to be swimming around in my clothes underground.

Instead of retracing our steps, we exited the caves at a different location. After stepping out into open air we had to climb up a steep slope of rocks before following a path round through some countryside back to the complex. It was now raining. We returned the wellies we'd hired, picked up our bags and some of us got changed; I didn't change because the the facilties had wet floors and were really dark and didn't have anywhere to hang anything up. We were also in a rush. I just wrung out my top and shorts and hoped I'd dry out naturally on the bus back to Baños.

It was past 6pm by the time we left and our tickets from Tena had been booked for a particular time so we had no time to lose. We flagged down a taxi to take us to Tena as quickly as possible. We had bought tickets in advance for a particular time. We arrived at Tena bus terminal just in time thank goodness. On our way out of town we passed by a large dusty volleyball court in the town centre; a game was being played under floodlights. It seemed to be the focal point of local activity in the town.

We arrived at Baños quite late but as we walked from the bus terminal to our hostel we saw that Carnival foam celebrations were still in full swing... once we had checked in and rested a little some of the others went out for a drink and dance, but one or two of us were knackered so we just went to bed. The ceiling of our dorm was painted like a sunrise, a nice touch I thought. I did however have a bowl of chicken pasta at the hostel's bar before I went to bed.

Posted by 3Traveller 11:35 Archived in Ecuador Tagged waterfalls hostel carnival banos ecuador explorations tena ecuadorian_cuisine misahualli freshwater_swimming cave_system Comments (0)

Journey to the Amazon: Carnival!

Guayaquil, Baños, Tena and Puerto Misahuallí


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I'd always wanted to be in a country that celebrates Carnival at that time of year, so now that Carnival had come upon us, I wanted to make the most of it! My friend/colleague 'E' and I went on a four-day trip to the mountains and rainforest with some friends of hers.

Our bus left Guayaquil's bus terminal at about 12.45 am. As snacks for the journey I bought a bag of small yellow sponge things that had jam in the middle and a little bit of sugar on the outside and a bag of small balls that looked like peanut brittle. Due to Carnival the terminal was crowded, despite the late hour. Guayaquil is very quiet at Carnival time because everyone goes off to the beaches at Playas, Salinas and Montañita or to places in the highlands like Baños, Ambato and Cuenca.

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I didn't get much sleep on the bus. I dozed off at one point but woke up because I was so cold; while I had dozed off we had clearly arrived in the mountains and the altitude had increased enough for a temperature change. I'd been in a sleeveless top before but now had to put my Bolivian coat on. I only managed to doze off again once or twice more before we arrived at Ambato at about 6.30 am. We only stopped there for a few minutes before carrying on to Baños, where we arrived about an hour later. Our arrival was interesting not only due to the amazing setting - mountains tower over Baños on every side - but because of the clouds. It was mostly sunny but there were a couple of very flat, low-lying clouds that we could clearly see both above and below. One of them looked almost like a bridge between two parts of the valley.

I was intrigued by the stalls set up on both sides of the terminal. They had bunches of what looked like green bamboo, long poles leaning up against the wall next to them and small ones upright underneath the stalls. I found out later that these were actually sugar cane.

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We had some breakfast at a café near to the bus terminal. Bread rolls with white 'queso fresco' inside, scrambled eggs, a glass of borojo juice (a fruit native to the Amazon) and a cup of hot milk (or hot water, if you fancied it) to which you could add coffee or hot chocolate powder.

Breakfast was relaxed but we only had time for a quick toilet stop after it because our bus to Tena was due to leave at 8.15. Tena is a 'jungle town' north of Puyo. As we sat on the bus waiting for it to depart (which it did half an hour after it was supposed to - other passengers started getting annoyed and called out to the driver "Vamos!"), I heard the crowing of a cockerel coming from very close by - apparently it was coming from inside the luggage hold below us! It did sound like it was directly underneath us.

It was still quite bright when we left Baños but about 30 minutes later it started to rain. It didn't last that long though. The journey took about four hours. Once we had arrived in Tena we didn't have long before we had to get another bus to the even smaller town of Puerto Misahuallí, which is on the banks of the River Napo. This took another hour.

We were dropped off in the town centre, which would probably have been sleepy at any other time of year but wasn't this weekend because of Carnival! There was a small fruit and vegetable market in the square, with wares spread out on blankets on the ground, and children and teenagers roamed with spraycans of foam... water-throwing and foam-spraying is a Carnival celebration very widespread in Ecuador! On almost every side there were little stalls set up selling cans of foam for $1. Luckily, for now at least the children and teenagers seemed to be concentrated in the park in the middle of the square, not at the corner where we were, so we crossed the River Napo bridge and up a hill to our accommodation without much damage.

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Our accommodation was a set of cabins, one of which was split into two dorms, where we stayed. In mine there was one single, a double and a bunk bed - nobody else wanted the top bunk so I took it. There was mosquito netting fixed over the windows.

Soon we headed out to our first excursion - a trip on the River Napo to two Kichwa-speaking indigenous communities. We stopped in town for a late lunch, however, on the way to the small riverbeach where the wooden motorised canoes leave from. There was a restaurant where the food was cooked on grills outside the front - whole fish and parcels of stuff wrapped in palm or banana leaves.

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As we watched for a while, the woman reached into a small water-filled tub and retrieved three very large and fat maggots, which she skewered and put on the grill... we weren't tempted, strangely enough!

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What we did have was the fish; tilapia, commonly eaten in the Amazon. They had been gutted but were completely whole apart from that. The flesh was very white and juicy and there had clearly been butter involved in the cooking process as well - it was delicious. We had one each; they came with yuca, a slice of lime and a salad made from raw onion, tiny pieces of cheese, herbs and a white vegetable I didn't recognise.

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The trip on the River Napo took about 10 minutes. The River Napo is a tributary of the Amazon, so I had always pictured there being mudbanks on every side, but in fact there were a lot of large, very smooth stones.

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Once we arrived at the first indigenous settlement we were shown round by the guide - he showed us lots of plants that have special uses, for example a couple of poisonous ones used for blowpipes, ones with medicinal uses, and a cinnamon plant (he handed round one or two leaves form it; I bit into one and it did indeed taste very strongly of cinnamon). There was also a pond with a couple of caimen in it and two small enclosure with a peccary and capybara inside.

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We saw some massive ants on one tree trunk - the biggest I've ever seen! Apparently if antagonised their bites are extremely painful. He showed us round a hut filled with examples of pottery, shells (he demonstrated blowing into one conch shell and we all had a go), jewellery, spears and other things. We finished up in another hut where there were samples of jewellery, balsa wood parrots, little bottles of natural remedies, spears and arrows and more. I was really tempted by the arrows but didn't think I'd be able to get them back to the UK in my luggage, so I didn't get any.

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It was lovely to stand on the bank of the Napo before we climbed back down the bank to the canoe, because I could see nothing but forest on every side.

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After this we visited another community on the other side of the river. They had a volleyball game going on in the middle of their square. We were welcomed with a dance by some of the women and we had a chance to be 'cleansed' by a shaman - I passed on this because although no doubt the roots of it are genuine to the community, it seemed quite put on for tourists. I had a wander round another hut filled with handmade souvenirs, but didn't buy anything. I wish I had now, though.

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Lunch had been very late for us so it wasn't long after we got back that we had some dinner. This time we had another type of grilled fish; I've forgotten its name but it was massive, with enough meat on it for four people. Those of us who chose it, including me, had one in the middle of the table for us to share, with bowls of rice and yuca and the same type of salad I mentioned before. Once again it was delicious. The flesh not only looked a very creamy colour but tasted creamy as well.

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It was after dark by the time we finished. Once we got back to our accommodation I had a much-needed shower and went to bed. Some of the others went back out for a drink or two, but by the time they decided to do so it had started pouring with rain and I felt so nice and dry and comfortable, as well as tired, that I decided just to get an early night instead.

Posted by 3Traveller 10:06 Archived in Ecuador Tagged bridges birds hostel buses parrots carnival banos ecuador guayaquil tena ecuadorian_cuisine misahualli river_trip peccary traditional_customs Comments (0)

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