Thursday, June 9, 2016

Gretchen's Ecuador Trip Report - Part II - Cotopaxi, Amazon and Quito

Paddling the lagoon at night to search for black caiman in the
still waters was a real adventure
After fantastic visits to Otavalo and the Galapagos, I was in for a treat with visits to Tropic's Chilcabamba Mountain Lodge in the Andes, Sani Lodge deep in the Amazon, and a few fun-filled days in Quito to finish my trip.

Top 4 takeaways from the Andes, the Amazon and Quito

1. A visit to Chilcabamba Mountain Lodge is a must for keen hikers. Less than two hours from Quito, a few nights here in addition to the Amazon and Galapagos give guests a real taste of Ecuador's different regions. Be sure your pax are aware of the altitude - its setting at over 11,000 feet could be a challenge for some.

2. A visit to Sani Lodge hits the major highlights of the Amazon perfectly - its incredible wildlife, a look at colorful local culture, and a refreshing and honest look at the challenges of extractive industry pressures. The days are chock full of activity - prepare your pax for long, very busy days that are full of the rewards of discovery.

3. Quito is a beautiful, vibrant city. The historic district is walkable and very well lit at night. Pax can feel comfortable navigating the area to find a fun spot for dinner or to take night photos of its historic buildings.

4. Tropic's 'May I Introduce You' series is seriously cool. It gets underneath the skin of the city and gives pax an authentic experience with locals. There is very likely an activity that matches a passion or interest of one of your travelers - it will make the city all the more memorable for them.

Read on for my full trip report on the Cotopaxi, Amazon and Quito...

Wild horses against the beautiful backdrop of the Andes
mountains in Cotopaxi NP
The Andes are stunning. They form Ecuador's spine, separating the Amazon from the coast and providing a playground for mountain-loving travelers. After returning from the Galapagos, I did an altitude 180 and went straight up to Chilcabamba Mountain Lodge, just outside of Cotopaxi National Park. The Lodge is less than 2 hours from Quito, but it feels like a million miles away.

With luck, travelers might see glacier-capped Cotopaxi, one of the world's highest active volcanoes, upon arrival. I arrived after dark, so would have to wait until morning to see what my luck might hold. It was great to end up in such a cozy spot after a very long day of travel. Jose, chef and lodge caretaker extraordinaire, had a fabulous meal planned. I almost couldn't get past the locro de papa, a gorgeous Ecuadorian soup that was perfect for the chilly evening. I could have had bowlful after bowlful, but instead I was treated to two more lovely courses before heading to bed. The food at Chilcabamba is excellent and just what's needed for vigorously active days in the brisk mountain air.

Cotopaxi making its appearance - view from Chilcabamba
Mountain Lodge lounge
I stoked the wood stove in my room before going to sleep. It's lovely having a crackling fire as you drift off to sleep, both for warmth and ambiance. Upon rising the next morning, I found a Cotopaxi shrouded in clouds outside of my window, but still faced with gorgeous alpine views. After breakfast, I had a bit of time to walk around the lodge to find its best views and reading nooks. I was rewarded with an unveiling of the mountain, and it was even more stunning than I had imagined.

We headed off for a waterfall hike. The hike is in Chilcabamba's backyard (so to speak), and Tropic chose its route to help travelers and locals alike to understand the importance of the Pita River to the Ecuadorian people. More than 25% of Quito's residents depend on the water from the Pita for their daily lives, and that water comes from the glacial melt from Cotopaxi's slopes. That water source will be in jeopardy if the climate alters too much.

The walk has a good awareness mission, but it is also simply beautiful. The Andean highlands awe with breathtaking views, rushing water and delicate wildflowers. There are two options for the walk - a half-day excursion of moderate difficulty (and great rewards!), or a very family-friendly excursion that is appropriate for young children. Both walks give pax a taste of the alpine environment, while the half-day version is great for altitude acclimation for travelers with bigger hiking plans.

Happy hikers at the Limpiopungo Lagoon
In the afternoon, we visited Cotopaxi National Park for a nature walk around the Limpiopungo Lagoon. The setting is iconic with the lagoon and its endemic bird life, the ice-capped volcano and (often) wild horses in the distance. There are options for easy to difficult hikes in the park, and every mountain lover will be happy. Tropic also recommends a mountain bike ride back to the lodge, which is mostly downhill. They have rides for every ability - including challenges for keen mountain bikers.

It was back to Quito for an overnight before heading to the Amazon. Tropic has a nice option not far from the airport (approx. 20 min). Hosteria Rincon de Puembo is located in a village about 10 minutes' off of the main road. While travelers could explore, the hotel also has everything anyone might need. Laundry service, a serviceable  restaurant, an outdoor pool, jacuzzi, sauna and steam room. Rooms are spacious and have satellite television. It's a good option for an 'in between' day or for early flights.

Into the Amazon. . . 

The next day brought a brief flight to Coca (25 minutes), and entry to the Amazon. Upon arrival, Sani Lodge guides greeted us in baggage claim and transferred us to a bus for a quick ride (5 min) to the Napo River. Our baggage was put into protective plastic bags, and we were off on our 1.5 hour motorized canoe ride down the Napo towards Sani Lodge. We had a box lunch en route, as well as a lashing rainstorm, which made it very clear that we were, in fact, in a rain forest.

The approach to Sani Lodge across its blackwater lagoon
The boat stopped at the Napo's edge, and we had a 15 - 20 minute walk down a raised deck to the edge of the lagoon system, where we boarded a non-motorized canoe for a 20 minute paddle to the lodge complete with bird and aquatic wildlife sightings. The journey definitely lets pax feel like they're doing a bit of exploring en route. We were warmly greeted at the lodge by staff, and given delicious snacks and a briefing in the open-air bar area.

After settling into our comfortable cabins, we went for an afternoon walk in the forest. It was a nice, light introduction to the Amazon and its animal and insect inhabitants. After a delicious dinner, we went out on the blackwater lagoon to search for nocturnal life, spotting a juvenile boa constrictor hanging from a tree, as well as a few black caiman, their eyes eerily reflecting in our flashlight beams.

The lodge operates on a generator, with service from 4-8 am, 10-2 pm and 4 pm to midnight. There are fans in the rooms that help move the equatorial rain forest air, but there is a four hour gap where they do not operate. I only found myself uncomfortably hot during one night, so the system works fairly well.
Javier and Guillermo unveiling the secrets
of the forest for us

We rose early for a long hike in the forest. Our guide Javier and our 'machete man' Guillermo walked us through various medicinal plants, species identification of animals, birds, frogs and insects, and even managed to get me to eat some ants. Surprisingly, they tasted like fresh lemon (despite being told this beforehand, I had a very difficult time believing that would be the case). We had a proper snack out on the trail as well - local chocolate bars and super-fresh and delicious granadilla (passion fruit).

The rain visited us again for the hike back, but it was hardly a bother. Sani provides high-quality ponchos and rain boots for all of its visitors, and we made it back to the lodge dry. In the afternoon, we practiced our blow gun skills (I have some work to do) before taking a tranquil canoe ride to Sani's observation tower.

36 meters in the air (202 steps up), Sani's wooden observation tower is in a kapok tree, towering above the entire forest canopy. It's an amazing vantage point not just for bird life, but for spotting primates and sloths as well. We had excellent viewing of all three, including a group of red howler monkeys feeding high in the forest's branches.

Stairway to the top of the forest canopy
After dinner, we went on a 'creepy crawly' walk with our guide. For about an hour, we walked through the forest spotting incredible insects and snakes - scorpion spiders, huge katydids, centipedes and more. Some of them were surreal in their size, but all were completely fascinating to see in their habitat.

The next morning we visited Yasuni National Park. Yasuni is Ecuador’s largest mainland park and is a Unesco designated international biosphere reserve. The park was untouched by the last ice age, resulting in a thriving and diverse pool of species, and it is one of the last true wildernesses in Ecuador.

We walked in the park, at times bushwhacking, in what felt like a real adventure. We (well, our guides) spotted wildlife that most would walk past without noticing. We went to a viewing blind near one of the park’s famous clay licks and had a snack while waiting for parrots and parakeets. It wasn't our lucky day, but it also wasn't the season to spot them. We did however get to hear a symphony of birdsong and see scores of luminescent butterflies.

My first experience tasting chica - the traditional
Sani welcome beverage
From Yasuni, we went to visit the Sani community. We were greeted with a bowl of chicha, a fermented beverage traditionally offered as a welcome to visitors. We then set off for a walk through the community where we learned about local architecture, the community turtle project, farming activities and the Sani lifestyle. This was followed by a visit to the women's project (great shopping for souvenirs and it benefits the women of the Sani community!), and then a chance to prepare a traditional lunch with the Sani women.

Everyone had a job for prepping lunch and it was my lucky day yet again, as I was chosen to stun and skewer huge squirming beetle grubs that would be grilled over the open fire. Despite extreme squeamishness, I'm proud to say I managed it. The whole meal making activity was very fun, and half the group was brave enough to try the cooked grubs, which tasted a bit like bacon. The rest of the food was a bit less challenging, with the fish and hearts of palm cooked in banana leaves being the highlight - it was absolutely delicious. For travelers with less adventurous palates, the lodge provides a packed lunch as a backup.

The next day we did a full day excursion to Panacoche for more wildlife viewing and piranha fishing. Seeing a different section of the Napo River was interesting, as well as observing some of the oil producing activities in the area. Tropic makes sure to expose guests to the the challenges that local communities and ecotourism ventures face with the intense pressure that extractive industries place on the Amazon. Seeing it live makes it very real.

I didn't have much luck fishing (though others did), but the day overall was very relaxing, with great primate sightings. In all, we managed to see 5 of the 13 species in the Amazon! Sani threw a wonderful 'goodbye' dinner - all of the meals we had at the lodge were delicious, and we headed to bed, blissfully exhausted from the busy days in the Amazon.

Andrea from Tropic hard at work making truffles
Back in Quito, I had a jam-packed 2 days where I had a city tour (incredible architecture and history!), a visit to the Casa del Alabado museum, as well as experiencing two of Tropic's unique 'May I Introduce You' tours. I can't recommend these activities highly enough. Not only do your pax get a more intimate view of the goings-on in Quito, they get to spend time with real, everyday residents, who open up to share their skills and stories.

The Pacari Chocolate Tasting Tour was fascinating and delicious. We learned about the production of chocolate and how Pacari does it 'better than fair trade,' as well as having a hands-on truffle making experience. It's possible that I ate my own weight in chocolate that day, only pausing for a minor earthquake, which Quito residents seemed to take with a 'ho hum' regularity.

One of Casa del Alabado's many pieces of art. Pre-
Colombian yoga, anyone?
I also spent time with Sara Palacios, whose clay-sculpting excursion takes place in her beautiful home. I felt like I was visiting a friend, and it took what I had learned about Quito's architecture and historic sights up a notch, as many are the subjects of her beautiful artwork.

My visit to the astonishing collection at Casa del Alabado was also a huge highlight. The privately-owned museum houses stunning pre-Colombian artwork arranged thematically, from the underworld to the heavens. Our guide was masterful at choosing what works to highlight and how to present the art. A pre or post-Ecuador adventure trip has its merits - either introducing pax to the culture and history, or reinforcing what they've learned throughout their travels. It's not to be missed.

No comments:

Post a Comment