Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Our life in Ecuador is pretty spontaneous.  I know that some retired people say that 'they've never been busier in their whole life', yadda yadda.  I'm not sure that we can say that exactly because some days we just have a leisurely coffee in bed followed by a similarly leisurely breakfast, followed by a leisurely bicycle ride....well you get the picture.  We woke up Tuesday morning and decided that we needed to 'get out of here'.  I'm not just sure what that meant exactly, but I think we just had it up to our eyeballs in leisurely.  I said to Rachel "Let's just go down to the terminal terreste (bus station) and jump on a bus".  "We can pack our toothbrush and a change of clothes in case we end up over night somewhere."  We took about 10 minutes to pack, were ready to go out the door and I said "Maybe we'll go to the coast or to the jungle and we'll need some shorts."  So we came back in to deposit a pair of shorts in my bag....Rachel didn't have any.  "I'll throw in these lightweight cropped pants" she said, and we were off.  You have to love her minimalist bent.  I think I could say 'lets go climb Mt. Chimborazo' and she'd pull out her light jacket, a rope, and we'd be off.  So we get down to terminal terreste without a destination but with our toothbrushes and a change of underwear.  We go to the window where Macas is displayed and the bus is leaving in 20 minutes.   I'm pretty sure Macas is on the edge of the jungle so I'm thinking we can maybe be wrestling with an anaconda by late afternoon.  I'm a romantic, give me a break.  A half hour before this moment we were finishing breakfast and not knowing for sure what we were going to do with our day.  Now we're boarding a bus that will go down a road we've never been on with a bunch of people whose languages challenge us.  We're going to a place none of our friends have been to and have no idea whether this is a good idea or not.  We're just on an adventure you know.

The first part of our trip was some familiar territory with Paute, Gaulaceo, and a couple other pueblos whose names weren't on the map or on a 'bienvenindos' sign somewhere.  We weren't far out of Gualaceo and we became abundantly conscious that this was not going to be a leisurely ride down a paved road to another charming little village at the end of the line.  In fact, the road we were on turned out to be quite primitive.  When I was in Alaska we called this a 'cat trail' which of course meant it was only for caterpillers.  Maybe I got that wrong.  Maybe it meant that the road would only sensibly be traversed by animals of feline agility.  In Ecuador buses qualify for these 'cat trails'.    We had been told this was to be a 7 hour bus ride so we came fully equipped with our Kindle, raisons, almonds, and Gatorade so we were ready for anything.  We were after all seasoned veterans of an extended 12 hour bus ride to Quito, so this would be a piece of cake.

I was pretty sure that this very coarse, rocky, road without guard rails was just a little detour that we would take before we got back on a nice hard surfaced road with all the safety amentities that we gringos think are so important.  Five hours later we discovered that this was in fact the main road.

The pictures I took out the window are no exaggeration.   The reason you don't see any shoulders or guard rails was because there were none.  In fact sometimes you could see the wheel ruts on the road edge that indicated a previous close call to the 2500 foot drop to the side.  Rachel was on the other side of the bus admiring the wonderful waterfalls as they cascaded next to the road on her side.  I thought it might be best if she stayed over there for the moment.

This went on for hours.  It was gorgeous and magnificent.  I truly felt like we were flying over a gorge because you could see no land beneath us whatsoever outside the window.  We were merely suspended in this magic bus to nowhere.

The road was obviously under construction (sort of) but there was no sign of the old road, so I guess this was it.  There was no turning back.  In fact if you met someone, you had to back up and on these roads that was a bit touchy because if you got too close to the edge it would end badly.

Peligroso means dangerous.  Funny.                 

But there's no way to describe the unspoiled virginal beauty that we experienced on the way.  There was no hint of civilization anywhere.  We were on our way to the jungle.  I was amazed that five of the seven hours of our trip was high in the Andes at altitudes probably at times in close to 14,000 feet.  We had to get over the Andes before we could experience the life in the lowlands of the jungle.  Macas would not come to us before the sun set.

When we arrived in Macas we were hungry and tired.  Of course we had no reservations and this did not appear to be a real upscale kind of town.  The abundance of nice hostels and restaurants in Cuenca kind of spoils you in that way.  Macas is the provincial capital of  Moronas Santiago and has a population of about 20,000 souls.  It is mostly indigenous and you hear the language of the Shuar and the Quichwa spoken nearly as frequently as Spanish.   We went hostal shopping and apparently started on the lower end at $15 per night for pretty seedy accomodations and ended up going a bit more 'upscale' for $25 per night at Hostel Casa Blanca where the showers were hot, breakfast of eggs, pan, and hugo were included, and for those who brought their laptops, WIFI was available.   I use the word upscale somewhat loosely, but I think for this city, it was pretty good.   We had supper at a Chifa  (Chinese food) restaurante and we were well satisfied.  We slept pretty well on that hard bed until we heard the rumble of the dough machine in the bakery next door about 3:30AM.  The smell was to die for however so we put up with the rumble.

After breakfast we began our search for a tour guide who could take us one day into the jungle.  We weren't too fussy, but I guess in retrospect, fussy would have been good.  We went to a bonafide tour agency where the fee was $50 each round trip and included some river time, hiking time, and return to Macas by 5:30.  We decided to take a pass on this and set about looking for other possibilities.  We ended up talking to a short young guide who introduced himself in broken English as a  Shuar  (think head hunter).  His name was Tsunki and he seemed really authentic.  Since there were no shrunken heads dangling from his belt we felt safe and that he would give us the tour of a lifetime.  Cost was the same as the tour agency and was all inclusive so we thought this was it.  To his credit Tsunki showed up on time at 7 AM, but from there, things went downhill according to his promises.  Tsunki couldn't predict that we would have a downpour of rain the first 2 hours.  Luckily there were some people he knew that could share a roof while we waited out the storm.  Rachel made herself comfortable on some planks.  I never said anything about first class accomodations did I?

As the rain became progressively heavier and one hour stretched into two, she became a little more comfortable.

When the rain finally subsided, we set off on a very muddy walk.  Sometimes the mud sucked our boots off.

There were some pretty flowers

And we sampled some fruits along the way

After a while I knew why Tsunki recruited some help for the river leg of the trip.

Yes, this was our luxury river cruiser.  It was 3/4 full of solid mud and water and it's maritime worthiness was definitely in question.  We spent over a half hour bailing water and scooping mud, mostly with our hands and one small plastic vessel.  Each time we got a few hundred pounds of mud and water out we pulled the canoe uphill a little further out of the water until finally we had what resembled a canoe.  Then one of the helpers disappeared into the bush and appeared once again with two blocks of wood, our seats.  They were wet and muddy too.  We had long ago given up any idea of staying mudless.

We had to clean it up a bit.  It took an hour and I shared in the fun.  Did I mention this was a discount tour?

Rachel and I thought this beautiful and authentic dug out would make a much better craft, but noooooo......
We bailed the mud and water out of the canoe and set off to meet with the Shuar shaman who was upstream from our launching site.   The river current was very swift in places and we made our way upstream with poles rather than oars.

  This went on for about 45 minutes until we came to the place of the shaman where we thought we would have a little ritual and be on our way.  I know that Tsunki said something about Ayahuaska and I knew what that meant.  I was also sure that neither Rachel or I would partake in this hallucinagenic exercise, especially with this unknown Shuar and his yet to be found shaman.  When we got to the huge thatched hut it was evident that no shaman was there to meet or greet us.  So far, things were taking on a rather predictable route here, and it was to expect nothing of promises.  There was a middle aged woman and a younger pregnant woman there and they spoke in Shuar to Tsunki and we were told by Tsunki that the shaman had gone (waving his arm towards the unknown) and would return at .........maybe o'clock.    So now we had gone upstream in a canoe for 45 minutes, landed at the shaman's hut.  The canoe and it's owner had already left, and we were there until the shaman returned from heaven knows where and when.   We were promised a meal and already that was a bit scary too.  I knew that whatever we were offered we should eat so as to not offend the Shuar.  After all, you don't offend the Shuar unless you want your cap size decreased substantially.  Rachel already determined that she was not going to eat what came out of that kitchen, so I was already concerned that her pretty face would appear in some gift shop.  As for me, I was determined to eat what was put before me, thanks to my midwestern-German-Iowa-farmboy heritage to do just that.  What came out of that cooking place was truly nasty looking.  We were told that it was tuna.  Yum.  By then we were joined by some little friends that were there to save the day.  Thankfully by this time Tsunki and the host ladies left us alone in the hut with our meals and the camp dogs, birds, and monkey came to investigate the luncheon.  I have a feeling this has all played out in this camp before.  Silly gringos come up the river to meet the shaman, the shaman isn't there, the silly gringos are fed some nasty looking gruel, the hosts leave the room, and the animals of various sizes and shapes swoop in for the spoils.  

 The parrot was a real crowd pleaser and had more personality than a game show host

and he slicked up my tuna really well....

but not before seƱor Mono (squirrel monkey) had his fill!

Rachel and I had Tsunki take our picture by the hut since we didn't get a chance to have our picture with the shaman.  We waited another hour for him and then instructed Tsunki we did not want to wait till dark.

We convinced Tsunki that waiting forever for the shaman wasn't going to be a good bet for us.  Tsunki did not have his own transportation back to Macas and we were pretty sure our return trip was going to be as predictably unreliable as our walk and river ride.  Our hunch was extremely accurate.  We waited over two hours at a cross road of two seldom used paths navigable by only the highest clearance vehicles.  After the second hour passed while we waited for driver #1, Tsunki called for driver #2.  Oh, I forgot to tell you that Tsunki's cell phone didn't work because of a dead battery.  I'm pretty sure he had lost his charger years ago.  Fortunately, my battery worked and we were able to make a call.  We were all pretty exhausted and the afternoon sun was starting to sap what little energy we had left.  We made our way to a nearby village.

The village was clean and tidy and the people were very friendly.  Tsunki had a shuar friend there who offered us chicha which is made from manioc and fermented with human spit.

As we waited for driver #2 some of the distant high level clouds started to lift

 and out came Vulcan Sangay.  What a gorgeous volcano!

Our trip back to Macas was relatively uneventful.  We were taken back to town by a pickup taxi that was filled to the brim in the back by the time we made our way back.  The scenery was magnificent all the way.

The next day we prepared ourselves for the seven hour adventure ride back home.  This time however, the driver took an entirely different route.  It was a hard surfaced road almost the entire trip, but it took almost nine hours.  Some of the trip was in the cloud forest and fog and we simply couldn't take good pictures.  We were amazed at how much hydroelectric power had been harnessed from these mountain waters.  The resultant lakes and dammed rivers were breathtaking from the road we travelled.

As in our trip to Macas, the return was at a high elevation, contantly looking down at the gorge below.  This time it was of a lovely man made lake that we fantasized about building on some day.  

When we got back to Cuenca we had the feeling of just awakening from a dream.  We were back home and we had to ask each other if what had happened over the previous three days was real.  It was.  Our hot showers were a delight.