One afternoon in Otavalo, Ecuador

Face painting for charity

One sunny day, we sat in Otavalo’s main square. We saw people wander past, families, couples holding hands, young men in groups, laughing loudly, wearing t-shirts and hoodies, phones in hand. Young women in twos or threes, jeans skin-tight, careful make-up, arms linked. Women in traditional dress carried children slung in shawls on their backs. All the old people were tiny, nearly dwarf sized.

The Ecuadoran Red Cross was raising funds by offering face-painting for donations. We watched the artist spend a good half-hour decorating a little girl’s face while her mother waited patiently nearby. I asked permission to take a photo and the mother smiled and gestured: Go ahead.

An elderly woman in traditional clothing begged for coins. When Mark gave her a couple of dollars, she smiled broadly and launched into a long speech in Quichua that seemed to be a mix of gratitude and blessings heaped on our heads. She had only a few teeth and those were rotten and rooted at wild angles. She shook his hand and shook my hand. Then she reached over, stroked his cheek, and touched the skin on his hand. She began talking to me, saying I don’t know what. She pinched the sleeve of his black jacket and shook her head. It seemed to me that her gestures encompassed his jacket, his face, Heaven, and his skin.

Perhaps it was my imagination, but was she telling us that he should not wear black, that it made him look sad and pale? Of course, he WAS sad and pale. As she spoke and gesticulated, I wanted so much to grab my camera and take photos of her amazing wrinkled face, but it just didn’t seem respectful.

After a few minutes of this one-way conversation, she wandered off, her small figure quickly out of sight in the colourful crowd.

Market sellers

Young senorita in traditional dress

Sacha Lodge: Amazon Adventure Part 2

Sacha Lodge’s canopy walk, 30 m above the forest floor.

When last we met, gentle reader, I was lost deep within the Amazon jungle, pitifully dehydrated and starved, surrounded by merciless headhunters and savage wild animals, swooning in the steadying embrace of my brave companion, as we faced, unarmed, the rapid onslaught of a particularly bloodthirsty-looking individual.

“Lemonade, madame?” he inquires solicitously, proffering a tray of iced fruity drinks.

This is the conundrum and delight of Sacha Lodge: there is no question that you are in the rainforest, light years away from any town. There are piranhas in the lagoon, caimans directly underneath the boardwalk upon which you stand, tamarin monkeys swinging nonchalantly overhead, and tarantulas within armsreach. Yet your weightiest decision is whether to choose fish or beef for your main course. I’ve always been more than a little timid about the dangers of the Amazon, but—as with so many things—once you’re actually there, it all seems exciting and fun rather than threatening.

That’s not to say there aren’t safety concerns. As we sipped those welcoming drinks, the manager gave us the orientation talk with all its do’s and don’ts. We were assigned two guides and given our own little tour group, probably because, being birders, we were the odd ones out. (Trust me, no sane person wants to be stuck in a group with birders.)

Our four-night stay was quite regimented: up every morning by 5 am when the guide knocks on your door. Breakfast at 5:30, hit the trail—or the canoe—at 6:00. The guides decide your destination. One morning, you climb the canopy walk (30 m of stairs). Another morning, you take a different 30 m of stairs to a platform atop a massive kapok tree. A third day, you might go on a longer canoe ride to more distant birding areas. What gets done when depends on the weather and the interests of the guests.

Back at the lodge by 10:30, you find that you are peckish (after all, breakfast was a loooong time ago), so naturally, there’s a snack waiting for you out in the open-air dining pavilion. Then a bit of leisure time before lunch, followed by more relaxation during the hottest hours of the afternoon. Take a swim in the lagoon, read, catch up on your sleep.

At 4 pm, you’re out again with your guides for more exploration, in our case, via small canoe up the various waterways (see previous post “Birding By Boat”) where the wildlife-spotting opportunities change constantly. Birding is a challenge, as the area boasts nearly 500 species, many from families completely foreign to us: antbirds, manakins, jacamars, woodcreepers, etc.

Hoatzin

The first day, we easily spot one of my targets for the trip: the primitive hoatzin with its funky hairstyle, clambering awkwardly through the trees. The next day, we find the boat-billed heron, huge dark eyes peering through the gloom. On the last day, I spot a massive anaconda on the bank less than a metre from our boat. And monkeys, always monkeys, noisily feeding and moving through the forest: capuchins, red howlers, squirrel monkeys, night monkeys, tamarins.

As darkness arrives, you head back to the lodge for the most formal meal of the day, when guests compare notes on what they’ve done and seen that day and wrestle with the aforementioned challenge of choosing between several tasty menu options.

Finally, you stagger back to your cabin and fall into bed, not minding at all that it’s only 9 pm. You might struggle to stay awake for a few minutes to enjoy the deafening chorus of night sounds, frogs, insects, and lord knows what else, competing to be heard a few inches from where you are laying your head, but you won’t win that battle for long. Before you know it, that 5:00 knock is tapping at your door.

“This is like summer camp for grown-ups,” my husband pointed out. I don’t know if he was referring to the early lights-out, the structured, supervised activities, or the joy of being outdoors all day, every day, but overall, I think he hit the nail on the head. It wasn’t all fun and games—hiking in stifling heat and humidity while giant carnivorous flies attempt to harvest chunks of your flesh right through your clothes is not my idea of a good time—but it was all worth it. Sacha Lodge provides a superb adventure for those of us who dream of the Amazonian jungle but like our comfy beds at night.

Do’s and Don’ts for Sacha Lodge

  • Do not forget to count your malaria pills before you leave home. (See previous posting “Malarial Muddle.”)
  • Do not forget to stock up on high-powered insect repellent before you leave home. You may not find any in Quito.
  • Do not worry about being clumsy when climbing in and out of the little canoes; I’ve already set a Guinness World Record for awkwardness that is unlikely to be beaten any time soon. Besides, the guides do take good care of you.
  • If you have the time, do take the car trip down from Quito to Coca rather than flying. It’s a beautiful way to see the mountains. You can fly back, so you don’t have to do the drive up.
  • Do bring a swimsuit so that you can enjoy the lagoon pool. Probably the only chance you’ll ever have to swim in the Amazon waters.
  • When the guide offers you a rain slicker, do not be brave or stoic or think you know better. Take the d**n thing or you will regret it. I was already wearing a rain jacket and a rain poncho and thought the one he offered would be extraneous. Wrong. Welcome to Ecuador, where two raincoats are not enough.
  • The lagoon at sunset.

Sacha Lodge: Amazon Adventure

Oil company vehicles being barged up the river to remote sites.

The photos were gorgeous. The reviews were raves. No question, Sacha Lodge in the Amazon basin of Ecuador has a sterling reputation. We had only four nights to spend in the area—someplace we might never visit again—and we wanted to be sure that our experience would be top-notch. We ignored the Big Numbers on the rate sheet and booked.

In the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon, there are a number of jungle lodges (or, as they prefer to style themselves these days, eco-lodges) scattered along the Napo, the largest tributary to the Amazon. From my research, it seemed like they shared some characteristics: e.g., trained guides, walks in the jungle, and canoe rides. Most have some kind of tower or walkway to allow guests to visit the canopy. Differences between the lodges include style of accommodation, quality of food, size of groups, distance from civilization (the farther, the better). Sacha scored high on all these criteria. It also has a swimming area in the river, a huge draw for us, and something no other lodge can boast.

We knew that we didn’t want to waste our precious time doing activities that were of marginal interest, like visiting a local village (see previous blog People Safaris) or fishing for piranha. Our goal was birds and wildlife, as much as possible. So I eliminated the lodges that seemed to put a lot of emphasis on unwanted activities.

When I contacted Sacha, they were firm that we would not be allowed to do any wandering around on our own. Once we arrived, we understood completely why, and to be honest, although we’re usually pretty independent, we wouldn’t have wanted to roam without a guide. There are just too many dangers in the forest and a lot of ways to get lost or injured. This is the depths of the wilderness; you are a long way from medical help and you don’t want to take chances.

They were also cagey about promising exactly which activities we would do, saying that would be up to the guide and the group we were with. I wasn’t thrilled about that. I’ve been on too many tours where we were stuck with people whose interests were completely different and bored guides who obviously couldn’t wait to check their phone messages. However, I trusted to the excellent reviews and the promises that we would have the ultimate Amazon experience.

When I explained that we are birders, the booking agent asked if we’d like to have a guide who specializes in birds, rather than a generalist. Yes, please! In addition, she told me they would try to place us in a group with other birders, if possible. I crossed my fingers.

For all of these lodges, guests make their way to the closest city, Coca, and meet up with a motorized canoe for the trip up the Napo River. A glitch occurred immediately: while most guests arrive by plane and are met at the airport, we chose to be driven down to Coca so we could see the countryside along the way. I had confirmed with the booking office the time that the boat would depart and had received this info: “If you arrive to Coca on your own you will need to join the group around 12h00 in our office of Coca.” We therefore planned to arrive around 11:00 so there would be plenty of time. We arrived at the office just after 11:00 and were met by anxious handlers who indicated everyone else was waiting around just for us and hustled us into the boat asap. Minor issue, but it was lucky that we hadn’t planned on a 12:00 arrival.

Motoring up the river for a couple of hours was fun. The boat had a canopy in case of bad weather, but it was clear and dry that day. We saw a few small clearings on the banks where people lived, but they were far away and not terribly interesting. We were surprised at the amount of development related to the oil industry that we saw: plants and docks and barges moving large goods (think semi-trailer rigs) to or from the oilfields, plus lots of company-owned boats ferrying workers around. This wasn’t the pristine rainforest I had imagined. But that changed once we docked upriver.

Everything–including mattresses–goes in and comes out of Sacha by small canoe.

After leaving the boat, we walked inland for about 30 minutes along a boardwalk through thick forest to the edge of a narrow waterway, where we climbed into a smaller canoe paddled by Sacha staff. We passed a similar canoe tenuously loaded with a double-size mattress, which reminded us that everything that goes into or out of the lodge must go by small canoe.

Ten minutes later, we slipped into the open lagoon across which lay the lodge, a beautiful sight, surrounded as it is by intense green foliage, blue sky, and still, dark water. Now, we were in the Amazon!

(To be continued)

Blackwater lagoon, home to Sacha Lodge.

Malarial Muddle

Worldwide distribution of malaria: green is malaria-free, blue is eliminating malaria, red is controlling malaria. Image source: thelancet.com

 

 

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might be inspired to think about travelling to destinations like Thailand, Cambodia, Ecuador, or South Africa. All wonderful places to visit, but all home turf for malaria.

Malaria is nothing to take lightly; the World Health Organization estimates that in 2016 there were 216 million new cases of malaria worldwide resulting in 445,000 deaths. Thank you, Wikipedia, for those uplifting statistics. I got to witness the effects of this disease first-hand in 1972, when my mother was infected somewhere along the journey from Lebanon to Yemen. Luckily, she contracted a non-recurring form of malaria and recovered.

So when we travel to places where malaria hangs out, we always err on the side of caution. We get the best anti-malarial prophylactics we can buy and we take them religiously, even in zones where there is minimal risk. Any risk, I say, is too much.

In the early 1980s, Mark, my husband, travelled to South America. He planned to visit the Amazon and consulted a doctor here at home about malaria prevention. The doctor told him that the medication was much cheaper if you bought it in South America, and recommended he pick it up in one of the cities before he ventured into the jungle. When Mark arrived in Lima, Peru, he went to a number of pharmacies to buy the pills, but none of them had even heard of the drug, either by its common name or by its chemical name. He ended up cancelling the Amazon portion of his trip because he couldn’t get the necessary malarial protection.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago, when we went to a specialty travel medical clinic to get a prescription for Malarone, the current drug of choice for preventing malaria. We each needed 13 days of pills to cover the time we’d be in the Amazon region, plus a week afterward (as prescribed). When we arrived in Quito and prepared to take the first dose, we discovered that we had only 13 pills in total; either the doctor ordered the wrong amount or the pharmacy dispensed the wrong amount. In my busyness before departure, I hadn’t bothered to count the pills in the bottle. My mistake.

Well, we figure, no big deal, we can just go to a local pharmacy and buy more. Surely, people go in and out of the Amazon through Quito every day, so they must sell Malarone. Nope. Once again, the pharmacists looked completely baffled when we asked for Malarone. We tried the chemical name. Nada. We explained where we were going and that we needed something against malaria and they just shook their heads. We used the Web to try to find a source for Malarone in Quito and discovered to our dismay that the drug is not sold in many countries, particularly the countries where malaria is common. What the heck?? Apparently, the company that makes Malarone is restricting where they sell it in order to stave off drug-resistance and keep the medicine effective for as long as possible.

Whatever. The hard fact remained that we were in a pickle. Only enough pills to protect one person, no way to get any more. Options: travel unprotected or cancel our jungle excursion. After discussing it, we decided to proceed. The area we would be visiting wasn’t high risk and we both had waited a long time to visit the Amazon.

So who got the pills? Well, with half my internal organs either missing or severely diminished and a depressed immune system, I could not chance being infected, whereas, we reasoned, Mark’s more robust constitution should see him through in the unlikely event he did get malaria. Not a happy choice but one that seems to have worked out: a month after returning from our trip now, we are both feeling fine, and, in fact, we didn’t run into a lot of mosquitos in the Amazon.

Lesson learned: always buy your travel health prescriptions before you leave home and count your pills!

Afterword: Now I read that counterfeit antimalarial drugs are commonly sold in some Asian countries, including Thailand and Cambodia. Yet another reason to buy at home.

What would you have done in our shoes? Take the risk or cancel? Let me know in a comment.

Ecuador’s Magic Birding Circuit

San Jorge de Tandayapa Lodge

 

Arriving in Ecuador, our first stop, San Jorge Quito, was part of the “Magic Birding Circuit,” a group of lodges under single management. Including Quito, Tandayapa, and Milpe, we spent a total of nine nights on the Circuit, a considerable investment of time and money. Would I recommend it? Yes—but with qualifications.

Things I loved: comfortable rooms (big bonus points for the in-room fireplace at the Quito lodge, a necessity for drying wet shoes and clothes after a wet hike), friendly staff (although most speak/understand little English), lovely locations, reliable transfers, feeders to attract birds, Milpe’s three-level bird-watching “tower,” Tandayapa’s views over a sweeping valley and into the treetops. From what I observed, the guides associated with the Circuit (freelancers, I believe) were knowledgeable and handled their groups well.

Sometimes there were little annoyances, like the person servicing the room carrying off all the towels for washing without giving us any new towels. In one lodge, they provided a single roll of toilet paper in the room and failed to notice when that roll was about to run out (which it did in the middle of the night, of course), so we had to dip into the emergency supply we carried in our luggage.

The first night at Tandayapa, we returned to our bungalow to find that someone had helpfully turned on the light beside our door. Unfortunately, this meant that our door was now covered in hundreds of moths. Although we turned off the light and shooed away as many as we could, it was impossible to open the door and enter without taking a cloud of insects with us. We spent much energy that evening capturing critters and throwing them outside, but I still woke up several times during the night when some large moth blundered into my face.

The food was fine, wholesome and plentiful. However, after several days, we found the Ecuadorian-based menu became a bit monotonous, and by the end of our nine days, I was ready to kill for a pizza or sandwich. It would have been nice to have more variation in the menu.

Tables and chairs in the open-air dining area of San Jorge de Milpe.

Speaking of meals, I’m not one to pay much attention to dining room furniture; as long as it’s functional, I take it pretty much for granted. However, in this case, it was as if someone who never actually used tables and chairs had chosen them. I began my relationship with the chairs at Tandayapa by immediately toppling over and dumping myself onto a very hard floor. Examining the chair after this painful encounter, I discovered that the legs of the chair were set so far in that anyone who did not sit exactly in the middle of the seat would suffer a similar ignominy. At the Milpe lodge, the chairs, constructed of raw, natural tree branches, are so assertively knobbly and uncomfortable that guests dubbed them The Iron Throne. The tables are perfectly constructed to the specifications of some alien race with no anterior limbs, as there is a spindle under each situated in the exact position to torture bipeds: too high to get your feet over it, too low to get your knees under it, so you are forced to sit far back from the table with your legs indecently splayed. In addition, these tables are also cleverly made of free-form tree limbs, creating such an uneven surface that guests’ drinks are constantly falling over.

But these are minor things.

More importantly, because we did not book as part of a tour with a guide, we found that sometimes we lacked useful information about the lodges. We would be shown to our room, told when the next meal would happen, and that was it. For other info, we had to dig around on our own or ask other guests. For example, we didn’t realize that we could request coffee/tea between meals until we saw other guests doing this. At the Tandayapa lodge, which is quite remote, we were unaware that there was a nearby hummingbird reserve that we could visit via some simple arrangements. Luckily, I overheard one of the other guests mentioning it, so we didn’t miss out on this beautiful site, but the experience did leave me wondering what other things we weren’t told. I understand that in a situation where we don’t speak Spanish and the staff speak minimal English, communication can be limited. However, the lodges could easily provide a sheet of basic information available in a variety of languages.

A few other suggestions for improvement:

  • I feel that if you book nine nights with the same company, they could provide free transfers between their properties. Currently, there is a significant charge for this service.
  • Similarly, I think they could offer a small discount for booking so many nights.
  • For Gawd’s sake, put extra rolls of TP in the rooms. I promise I won’t steal them.
  • Bread. No one wants to eat eggs for breakfast every morning, nor should they. (Can you say high cholesterol, boys and girls?) Guests were joking that they couldn’t wait to eat toast again. I was craving bread like you wouldn’t believe. Give me a fresh-baked roll and I’m a happy camper.

In summary:

Although it was interesting to stay in the old hacienda at San Jorge de Quito, we didn’t find it particularly “birdy.” We used it as a rest stop to acclimatize to the altitude and recover from jet lag, but you could find cheaper places to do that in Quito. I know that the tour groups did day trips from the lodge, so perhaps that made the location a better option, but for us, with no car and no guide, three nights was definitely too long. I wouldn’t recommend this lodge for avid birders.

If traveling without a guide, two nights at Tandayapa and two at Milpe would be enough. Perhaps if you’re far fitter than I and relish the prospect of hikes along dark, rough, muddy, slippery, hilly trails, you might enjoy an extra day in Milpe. Being a Lazy Birder, that really isn’t my cup of tea. Since the weather was bad, we spent a lot of time there sitting in the (covered) tower space waiting for the birds to come to the surrounding trees. Pleasant enough, but an expensive way to idle away your time.

We liked Tandayapa the best, although, to be fair, we had better weather there than in Quito or Milpe, so I’m sure that makes me biased.

Overall, the three lodges of the Magic Birding Circuit that we visited provide an enjoyable introduction to birding Ecuador. However, I’m not sure they are any better than similar lodges that may charge less. While it is tempting to embrace the “easy package” approach offered by the San Jorge lodges (and I fell for that myself), I would suggest you do further research and don’t rule out alternatives.

Toucan barbet photographed from the viewing lounge/dining area at Tandayapa.

Ecuador for Lazy Birders

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. We hope to see this funky dude on our trip–as long as it doesn’t take too much effort. Image source: neotropicalecuador.com

So, the Great Big Map of Ecuador is up on my kitchen wall, coloured dots marking destinations. After months of planning, the itinerary is finally in place. The central focus of this trip will be seeing and photographing as many birds as possible—within the constraints of a fairly leisurely and comfortable journey. Ecuador boasts over 1600 species of birds, so even without lengthy or steep hikes, extensive domestic travel, or rough locations, I figure we should tally a good number. Yes, even without visiting the Galapagos, which we decided had to wait for a future trip. Although the itinerary is built around birding, I hope to include dashes of local culture and points of interest.

After much research and dithering, I settled on flights from Vancouver to Quito via San Francisco and Panama City. The price was significantly better than one-stop flights (partly because I used points for the YVR to SFO leg), the departure and arrival times more convenient, and the total flight time not bad, considering the two stops. This plan also allowed me to build in a couple of nights in San Francisco to take in the sights and it falls within my winter travel imperative to avoid east-coast routes with their attendant risk of snowstorms and nightmare layovers.

My immediate goal upon arriving in Quito is to rest up and acclimatize to the altitude, so I’ve kept the first few days simple and quiet: three nights in the San Jorge Eco-lodge and Botanical Reserve just outside the city. We’ll spend those days checking out the bird feeders and walking their private trails and probably not much else.

The San Jorge group of lodges form what their promo likes to call “The Magic Birding & Photography Circuit.” It’s a smart idea: offer travellers a variety of lodges located in different bioclimatic zones (read: more species) with comfortable accommodations that cater specifically to birders and other nature nuts. I admit, I fell for it and ended up booking three of their properties, starting in Quito.

Just before the weekend, we’ll head off for one of Ecuador’s must-do’s, the Saturday artisan market at Otavalo, staying two nights at the Hostal Doña Esther. If time permits, we’ll try for the Parque Condor bird of prey centre housing rescued raptors.

Next, back to the “Magic Birding Circuit” for three nights at the San Jorge de Tandayapa Eco-lodge and three at San Jorge de Milpe. Both lodges promise comfy rooms, good food, and features such as feeders, birding trails, ponds, and waterfalls. All of the San Jorge lodges offer packages with guides included, but I opted for bed and board only, preferring to explore independently.

Two nights in Quito will provide a short break from the birding lodges, although a planned tour to nearby Antisanilla Reserve should yield some sightings, including Andean Condor nesting sites (fingers crossed). We’ll try to squeeze in some time at the Museo Etnohistorico de Artesanias del Ecuador Mindalae (Whew! That’s a mouthful.), which happens to be located just around the corner from our snooze site, Hostal de la Rabida.

Heading east through the Andes, we’ll spend three nights at the Wildsumaco Lodge poised between the mountains and the lowlands. On the first morning, I’ve booked a half-day of guiding for an introduction to the area and its creatures.

Sacha Lodge. Image source: sachalodge.com

Then it’s down to the town of Coca to connect with our small boat up the Napa River to Sacha Lodge, deep in the Amazonian rainforest. Visiting the Amazon jungle is on my bucket list, so I’m trying to keep my sky-high expectations under control. I hope we get the chance to visit the clay lick where hundreds of parrots gather to supplement their diets with healthful minerals.

We’ll fly back to Quito just in time for the week-long fiesta leading up to the holiday that celebrates the founding of the city. Music, street parties, and sightseeing in the Old Town should fill up our days and we’ll spend our nights at the Casa el Eden, recommended by a friend of a friend. Somewhere along the line, I’m sure we’ll find time to check out the chocolate, coffee, and helado (ice cream) shops.

Does this itinerary sound like fun or folly? Let me know what you think in a comment.

Quito mural. Image source: muralcomunitario.com