Snakes, Spiders & Spanish in the Amazon

Sunrise in the jungle
The view from our Cabaña
The view from our Cabaña

After saying goodbye to our family in Quito, we set off for the second week of the travelling Spanish classroom. We walked to the school and sat outside the front door as it was a Sunday and the school was closed. Waiting with us was Mario, our teacher for the next week, a short balding man with thick glasses and a baseball cap. It’s lucky that he was there because at 8:30am nobody had yet arrived for our 8am pickup. A few minutes later a tired old estate car pulled up, driven by Augustin, the man who owned the school in the Amazon. Augustin was polite and spoke perfect English, we piled the luggage into his boot and climbed in, Mario in the front and Prisca, Alex and I in the back. The back of the car only seemed to be designed for two people with the wide bench seat split in two, with Alex sitting over the middle. It was not ideal and the idea of a four hour trip without seatbelts (not at all unusual in Ecuador) did not fill me with excitement. Luckily we didn’t need to worry as, after a quick detour to collect Augustin’s wallet, we headed for the open road and realised with its broken rev counter and wobbly speedo the car wouldn’t do a lot a more than 40 mph.

As we headed away from Quito the roads went from excellent to fair then slowly got worse. As we drove through the mountains it became obvious that, thanks to frequent landslides, the road was often either in the process of being cleared, or in many places had completely washed away. We saw many teams of workers repairing the road but they were obviously fighting a difficult battle. We climbed up to 4000m over the Andes and through fog, then slowly started our descent into the jungle. Every hour or so we stopped so that Augustin could buy us a snack or sometimes just to admire a particular plant.

After three hours we’d left the Andes and arrived in Tena, the principle town of the region. On Sundays they close two lanes (one side) of the main highway for people to cycle on with the light traffic sharing the remaining two lanes, so for several miles the other side of the highway was filled with children and adults out for a Sunday bike ride. We stopped in Tena and wandered around the market. Here we saw bowls of sawdust with fat finger-length maggots wriggling around, apparently they are tasty when barbecued but we didn’t try! We had a further hour to drive but Augustin explained that we couldn’t arrive too early, as in between us and the school was a ferry across a river that would be closed between 12 and 1 for lunch.

Getting onto the car ferry
Getting onto the car ferry

We continued the journey after our break and arrived at the ferry. The ferry was a boat with a flat deck big enough to carry three cars or one small bus (that apparently crossed several times a day). Watching the car drive down to the river’s edge and then reverse onto the boat was somewhat Top Gear-esque and immediately brought to mind images of them trying to load low slung cars over steep ramps. After the car made it safely onto the boat we joined it and made a quick passage across the river. After a quick unload (forward this time) we were on our way again. We soon arrived at the small village of Ahuano, and were told that this was our nearest settlement. It really only consisted of a few dirt roads but had a small medical centre and shops for the necessary supplies.

Ahuano, our local village
Ahuano, our local village

We headed off onto a dirt track and 4km later we pulled off the road and stopped in a dirt clearing surrounded by jungle. Over the last 4km we’d passed only indigenous houses, generally pretty basic wooden structures raised on stilts, and I was starting to wonder what we’d let ourselves in for. We picked up the bags and walked down a path. A few metres later, out of nowhere appeared a beautiful two storey building. The roof extended far outside the plan of the floor, with most of the inside space being open wooden floors with wooden balustrades carved out of tree branches with supporting columns carved from gnarled tree trunks. The floor and all the wood was beautifully varnished and hammocks hung from the ceiling. Lunch was brought out to us which we ate on the ground floor in the open air. From the school which was on a small hill we had a great view of the rivers below at the point where several rivers merged around a number of islands. The river and forest beyond appeared completely untouched.

After lunch we were shown to our accommodation. The accommodation consisted of several cabañas about 20m away from the main building and totally hidden by the trees that surround everything. There were six rooms split across three cabañas with a balcony running along the front of each cabaña. Each room had a bathroom at the back and a bedroom at the front opening onto the balcony that had a hammock and shared the same view of the river as the main building. The cabañas had high ceilings and mosquito nets in the windows instead of glass. We’d paid an extra $75 dollars for the week for a private room, the alternative being split into male and female dorm rooms. Prisca, the other student who had shared the ride with us, was in another cabaña on her own in a dorm room. In fact, as we later discovered, we were the only students in the entire school for the week.

Chris enjoying the hammock seats in the school
Chris enjoying the hammock seats in the school

Our first afternoon was free for us to unpack and get settled in and we re-convened afterwards for dinner. We ate dinner with Augustin and Mario. Augustin mentioned that he was heading off the next day and would return on Thursday. He explained that lunch and dinner had been prepared by Alberto the security guard/cleaner/general dogsbody and that I’d have specially prepared vegetarian food once the cook arrived on Monday. As it happened although the food was simple it was delicious and beautifully presented and we were quite happy with Alberto. There was also not a shortage of food. Lunch consisted of a vegetarian soup followed by a plate with rice, a little salad and chicken for everyone else with my chicken hastily substituted for a fried egg. For dinner I had pasta with a tomato sauce with peas followed by a desert of cooked apple pieces floating in a sweet sauce. Every meal came with a juice from a different and often totally unknown fruit.

Lunch in the Jungle
Lunch in the Jungle

Since there was only one teacher for three students of differing abilities we’d be split into the same groups as the previous week, with Prisca getting her own lesson and Alex and I sharing. We’d alternate every day between having lessons from 8am-11am and 11am-1pm plus an extra hour after our afternoon’s activity. Prisca was first on the early shift and we’d have most of the next morning off. The school building and our cabañas all had coloured lights (with the exception of the bathroom) that were yellow or green so as not to attract the bugs at night. This meant that after dark there was not actually a huge amount of light. Nor was there a huge amount to do. For some reason the school was also fresh out of beer, however luckily we’d brought 5 that were leftover from our last night in Quito so we shared them out. Prisca had also brought a deck of Uno cards so we had a beer each and played Uno under the yellow light (which made distinguishing the colours quite difficult). We went to bed early and settled in, ready for our 7:30am breakfast the next morning.

Our classroom for the week
Our classroom for the week

The next morning we walked up to the school for our breakfast to find fresh fruit, pancakes and freshly squeezed fruit juice! We were on late lessons so we were able to go back and relax at the cabaña for a while after breakfast. At 11am we had our first lesson with Mario, our teacher for the week, he immediately didn’t seem quite as good as our teacher in Quito but was nice enough. Lunch was delicious and rather filling and after lunch we met Jaime, our guide for the week.

Cruising in the rain
Cruising in the rain

Our first afternoon’s excursion was a boat trip on a large wooden canoe (with an outboard motor) around the local rivers to see the area and some wildlife. We journeyed up the river around a few islands and into another river. About 3/4 of the way through the excursion it started to rain as heavily as I have ever seen. The guide decided to take us back to the school as apparently the rain was heavy enough on the boat roof that there was a risk of us tipping over! We made it back to the shore and started the climb back up to the lodge. In the 5 minute walk up to the lodge we got totally soaked and went straight to shower and clean up before our Spanish lesson. The afternoon Spanish lesson was only an hour before it got dark and was just for revision and practice. We had dinner soon after and discovered that our replacement chef had not yet arrived. Alberto was doing great though so we were not at all bothered. After dinner we played Uno under the dim lights and lamented the lack of beer (which had also not arrived).

The false banana
The false banana

On Tuesday the weather had improved and we woke up to that wonderful view down to the rivers. We had our lesson at 8am so after another excellent breakfast we settled into 3 hours of Spanish. After the lesson we had a two hour break before lunch and then our afternoon’s activities. Jaime arrived and fitted us out with our wellies for the week and after a short boat ride in our canoe driven by Carlos (Jaime’s brother) we arrived on Anaconda Island. Jaime patiently explained that there were in fact no Anacondas on Anaconda island, however there had once been a jungle lodge with a pet Anaconda (a practice that is now outlawed) on the island which had given it the name. We walked around, occasionally stopping to be shown many interesting plants including cocoa, coffee, yucca, a cinnamon tree which we tasted, and a false banana which looks just like a banana except when you peel the skin it is full of seeds instead of the flesh that we are used to. You can actually suck off the little flesh that there is around the seeds and it tastes somewhat like banana. Jaime was pretty good at explaining everything in slow, simple Spanish which meant that even I understood about 70% of what he said.

Eventually we reached a house in a clearing and Jaime explained that we were going to see a traditional indigenous house. The house was raised up on stills partly because of the floods that can inundate the island and I suspect partly to provide some protection against the many snakes and spiders that inhabit the island. We climbed the stairs and sat down in the central room. The house was entirely built from local timber with a high pitched roof covered in palm leaves, the inside of the roof was black from the smoke of the movable fire (raised on legs to prevent it burning the floor) and Jaime explained that blackening the inside of the roof effectively preserved the palm leaves and meant that the roof would be watertight for up to 15 years. Next, a small child was summoned to bring out the implements for making chicha, an indigenous alcoholic drink made from fermented yucca. Jaime explained how chicha was made, by the whole family chewing the yucca and spitting it out into a bowl which was then covered with leaves and left to ferment for a few days. The saliva acts as the fermenting agent to stop the yucca rotting. Knowing that we were about to be offered a taste of the chicha we were starting to feel a little uncomfortable with the idea of drinking something that has been chewed and spat out! Luckily Jaime then explained that at some point they had realised that this was a great way to pass diseases between people and that modern chicha used sweet potato to ferment the yucca instead of human saliva! We were much more relaxed a few minutes later when a gourd bowl filled with chicha was passed around for us to taste. The chicha tasted pretty sour so we only tried a few sips and then headed back outside.

Chris trying a blowpipe
Chris trying a blowpipe

Our last activity for the day was to practice with a blowpipe! In the garden of the house they had made a small target out of balsa wood in the shape of an owl. We walked about 20m away and Jaime showed us the blowpipe and darts that they use in it, which are basically a smaller and thinner version of the disposable bamboo kebab skewers that we get at home, but wrapped in cotton at one end to seal the pipe. The blow pipe itself is about a metre long and is held with one hand near the mouthpiece and another extended down the shaft to help with the aim. Jaime demonstrated how to shoot it and of course hit perfectly first time. Since I’d not entirely understood all of the instructions, Prisca went next and missed the target though her dart flew out of the pipe at speed so it wasn’t too bad for a first attempt. Next was my turn. I did my best to aim, pressed my mouth tight onto the mouthpiece and blew. I missed but only by a few centimetres. Alex went next and managed to only blow hard enough that the dart dropped out of the end of the pipe with only enough speed to take it around a metre. Jaime asked if anyone would like another go so of course I volunteered. This time however I was more lucky, hitting the balsa owl right in the centre with the dart embedding firmly. We walked up to the target and Jaime asked me to pull out the dart, it was so far embedded into the balsa wood that I couldn’t and Jaime could actually only pull out our darts himself by pushing hard against the target. This shows how easily they can penetrate the skin of whatever animal is shot. Finally Jaime explained that the darts are never poisoned, only treated with a muscle relaxant that effectively paralyses the animal which is generally killed by the subsequent fall to the ground.

After the explanation was finished we headed back towards the boat. The boat took us into the village (Ahuano) where a lady showed us how they produce hand made pottery (without a potters wheel). While we were in the town we used the opportunity to access the internet and to buy some beers for the evenings. We took a camioneta (local pickup based transport) back to the lodge and I rode in the back like we did so many times in Africa! We discovered in the evening that our chef still hadn’t turned up and Mario, the teacher, seemed to be getting a little worried that Alberto would walk out in protest, however dinner arrived at the usual time so we didn’t worry too much.

An Equis or Fer-de-Lance on our path
An Equis or Fer-de-Lance on our path

On Wednesday after our usual lessons we met Jaime for a walk in the jungle. He’d given us a choice the day before as to how long we should walk and we’d opted for the three hour maximum. We walked out from the lodge, across the dirt road and started on a path that led into the jungle. Only a couple of hundred metres later Jaime suddenly stopped and started slowly backing up. He pointed at the path and I could immediately see a snake with its head raised about 3 metres in front of us. Jaime explained that this was actually an ‘Equis’ (X in English) named because of the characteristic ‘X’es on the side of its body. Apparently this snake (which I later discovered that we refer to as a fer-de-lance) is one of the most dangerous snakes in South America. Although it is fairly small and unassuming, a bite from this snake can kill you within 5 hours without medical attention and without anti-venom you are more than likely to lose the affected limb! Our snake was looking particularly alert and Jaime was not taking any chances. While we stood well back Jaime threw a few sticks beyond the snake and when it eventually started to slither away he watched where it went and as we walked past it we walked as far away from it as the path would let us. After that excitement nothing else was going to beat it. We saw many interesting trees that Jaime explained to us and some interesting varieties of ants and other insects and we slowly climbed our way up to a peak. When we reached the top we had a great view of the surrounding forest and rivers below us and after stopping to admire it we walked back down to the lodge.

We got back to lodge to discover that our cook had now arrived and from what we could gather there had been some kind of mix up with holiday dates. That said although dinner was a little different (Alberto’s vegetarian repertoire although delicious was not especially varied), it wasn’t actually any better so we were still pretty happy.

Tubing on the Rio Napo
Tubing on the Rio Napo

On Thursday after lessons and lunch our afternoon’s activity was tubing on the river. Jaime had decided to take the afternoon off to go fishing (probably partly because we’d decided to choose the Saturday option that required him to work) so we had the boat driver, Jaime’s brother Carlos, who is also a qualified guide. Carlos took us up the river in the boat as usual and once we reached a good point Carlos produced what looked like truck tire inner tubes from the roof of the boat. After showing us how to sit/lie in them and paddle we set off down the river. We immediately hit some rapids which were a lot of fun but soon after the river slowed down to a crawl and so we slowly floated down, enjoying the peace and quiet. After a while we reached an beach and stopped to swim. From the beach you could climb up some rocks and jump off while holding a rope tied to a tree. Myself and Prisca gave it a go but Alex wasn’t so keen. We saw some locals catching fish and eventually set off again. We drifted down the river enjoying the calm for another 45 minutes or so and eventually Carlos caught us up in the boat and picked us up. We cruised back to the lodge and Alex got out of the boat first. As she stood up I noticed about 30 huge bites all over her back. Luckily they didn’t seem to be annoying her and she couldn’t see them, but we later worked out that she must have got them all in the 10 minutes when we stopped to swim.

Terry the Tarantula
Terry the Tarantula

Just before dinner I was lying in the hammock writing a post for this blog when suddenly above my head I noticed something large crawling across the inside of the roof of the cabaña. It looked like a large spider so I quickly ran inside and grabbed the camera to try to get some photos and although they didn’t come out well as it was getting dark, the next day Jaime confirmed that we had a tarantula. Alex didn’t even want to come and look at it but I persuaded her to have a quick look. We saw it again for most of the remaining days in the jungle and knowing that it could easily crawl under our door in the night we put a towel in the gap and improved our nightly pre-bed ‘wildlife in the cabaña’ checks. After a couple of days it was quite nice to come back and find Terry (as we named it) on the roof, as at least then we knew where it was!

The Thursday evening was spent the usual way, although we were pretty tired so decided to go back to our room after dinner and watch a downloaded TV episode on my tablet. We were about 20 mins into the episode where we heard a roaring outside. We assumed that what we could hear was the wind of a violent storm coming our way. The noise got louder and closer for a few minutes until eventually it hit us. We suddenly realised that instead of wind the noise was actually the sound of the raindrops falling on the leaves of the trees all around us. Now unable to hear the tablet I first tried turning the volume up to full and eventually had to turn on my Bluetooth speaker on full volume so that we could hear anything.

Sunrise in the jungle
Sunrise in the jungle

The rain continued for most of the night but I woke up at sun rise to see the view down to the river below shrouded in most and lit up bright pink by the sun rise. I quickly threw on some clothes and walked onto the terrace with the camera. In the couple of minutes it had taken me to get out the sun had risen enough that some of the pink had disappeared and looking at the photos the effect went so quickly that you can only see any colour in the first couple of shots. We got up for breakfast and since we didn’t have an early class we returned to the cabana and settled into the hammocks. Although the lodge had no WiFi and there was no mobile reception, I had worked out that I could get a couple of bars of mobile signal if I lay in the hammock outside our cabana and held the phone about 1ft above me. I’d been using this technique to check e-mails and WhatsApp messages once a day and I was just doing this again when a couple of WhatsApp messages came through from my good friend Tom saying that he had proposed to his girlfriend Lizzie in Thailand! We exchanged a few messages of surprise and congratulations and quickly worked out that he was messaging me from dinner at 9pm in Thailand and I was messaging him at 9am in Ecuador exactly the other side of the world (at least in terms of time). We were pretty excited as Tom is a great friend and we’ve enjoyed getting to know Lizzie over the last few years and seeing them so happy together! After a couple of hours of messaging Tom and a few of our friends that he’d told at the same time my arms were getting pretty tired from holding the phone over my head, and it was time for our Spanish lesson.

Turtles in a row
Turtles in a row

After the lesson it was time for the afternoon’s activity which today was a trip to the animal rescue centre called Amazoonica. As usual it was a boat ride away and on an island somewhere up river. We arrived at the same time as a group of three Germans and it turned out our guide for the tour was a Swiss volunteer at the centre. For the next hour we were led around the centre by our Swiss guide along with Prisca (who is Swiss) plus the three Germans while getting the whole tour in English because we were the only ones who didn’t speak German. It was slightly odd and reminded us just how bad the English are with languages! The tour was very interesting and we saw plenty of animals that we would never have seen in the wild including cats (Ocelots and Jaguarundis) that I never knew lived in the jungle. After the tour we got back into the boat along with a woman carrying a cake on a platter with bright green icing. It was quite odd sitting in a motor canoe cruising down the river while a woman carefully held a cake and when we disembarked we were very careful walking around her. We went back to the lodge for our final Spanish lesson and had a relaxed evening in the lodge.

Alex takes a dip in the natural pools
Alex takes a dip in the natural pools

Saturday was our final full day in the jungle and we’d organised some additional activities with Jamie. He arrived in the morning in a camioneta to take us on a walk through the jungle ending at some rock pools that we could swim in. Jaime brought a friend with him who followed us along the trail and was especially keen on taking photos with us. Funnily enough he only seemed really interested in getting photos with the girls and mostly with Alex. Once we got to the pools we had a swim and Jaime’s friend again wanted photos with Alex. I was pretty sure that he’d be showing off the photos with the European girls to his friends in the bar that evening! After our swim we walked back through the jungle to the town and caught the camioneta back to the lodge for lunch. On the way back to the camioneta we saw some ripe cocoa pods and opened them up to taste the fruit. It tasted nothing like cocoa and, having no clue how those fresh beans became chocolate, Jaime promised to show us how chocolate is made. We drove back to the lodge along a new road that connected up all the local villages. Jaime explained that this road was nearly brand new and since it was built the school children in these villages could now commute to school in Ahuano instead of having to board.

We ate lunch at the lodge and afterwards we went to the centre of the village to see the butterfly breeding centre. It was housed inside what were effectively giant poly-tunnels, and we were able to see all the stages of the butterfly life cycle and take a few photos. The centre belonged to the Casa de la Suiza, a giant lodge in the centre of town that can accommodate several hundred people. We walked into the lodge so that Jaime could pay for our entrance and discovered that the entire lodge had been hired out by an Ecuadorian Porsche drivers club. There were only about 30 people in this group and we worked out that every single member must have been paying up to 19 times what it would normally cost to stay there. The group were all dancing in the bar in the middle of the afternoon and seeing them made me appreciate our quiet little jungle lodge all the more. There were no Porsches to be seen and we couldn’t imagine that they would have successfully made it across by ferry or on any of the dirt roads that followed it.

Alex grinds cocoa beans
Alex grinds cocoa beans

We returned to the lodge to discover that Augustin had arrived and Mario had left. Jaime came with us and led us into the kitchen. He produced a bag of dried cocoa beans and explained that we were going to make chocolate. The first step was to dry fry the beans in a frying pan until they started to pop. We then peeled off the outer shell and ground them into a fine powder. Next we added sugar and milk powder and finally some hot water that had a stick of cinnamon stewing in it. The whole lot was mixed until it made a wet paste like melted chocolate and we were allowed to taste it. It tasted like no chocolate that I’ve ever eaten, sweet but still slightly bitter with a very strong chocolatey taste. We put the rest in the fridge for use in our dessert and said goodbye to Jaime.

Later at dinner Augustin explained that we’d have to leave early in the morning, pretty much straight after breakfast so we packed up that evening in preparation. Our flight was not until late the next afternoon so we envisaged waiting for many hours in the airport.

The next morning we left as planned and started our journey back to the Quito. When we got back onto the ferry we noticed that a butcher was using a band saw to chop up meat on the ferry as we were making our way across the river. It seemed an odd place to be doing this as the boat was rocking and his fingers were always close to the blade.

We left the ferry and hit the road. Just before we did however we took a left turn into a car park next to the ferry. In there we found around 20 shiny new Porsches that obviously belonged to the Porsche drivers club. They’d even hired a local policeman to guard them. Apparently in Ecuador a Porsche costs around three times what it does in Europe so we really were looking at the playthings of Ecuador’s super rich.

Clearing rocks on the road to Quito
Clearing rocks on the road to Quito

Back on the road we made good progress for an hour or so and were just climbing up over the Andes when suddenly we rounded a corner to see people waving at us to stop. Augustin came to a halt, however the two cars behind us who we later discovered were friends were driving far too close to each other and one smashed into the other. Luckily it was not hard enough to injure anyone though both cars were dented and pieces of broken light housing littered the road. We walked ahead a little and discovered the problem. Ahead of us the road was blocked by a rockfall. We were one of the first cars in the resulting queue but luckily a digger was already on site. The digger was sitting well back from the rockfall and a number of people were anxiously looking up the mountain unsure if there was going to be more coming down. After standing around for 20 minutes the guys who seemed to be in charge obviously decided it was relatively safe and the digger shot forward and started shovelling dirt and rocks off the road and into the valley below. Suddenly the onlookers waved him back fearing another rockfall and he shot back to safety. After another 5 minutes and no further rockfalls the digger resumed his work. Pretty quickly the road was nearly clear except for a giant boulder probably 2m cubed that sat in the middle of the road. The digger was only small and we doubted he’d be able to shift it, however the digger repeatedly rammed the rock both pushing and occasionally managing to roll it until eventually it rolled off the side of the road and we heard it slowly crashing down into the valley below. As soon as the road looked clear people starting running back to their cars and there was a free for all as everyone tried to quickly pass the road. After a scary few seconds we made it safely across and continued our journey. We now realised why we’d left the jungle so early. The remainder of the journey through the Andes was beautiful but uneventful and after nearly six hours on the road we made it to the airport in Quito. We checked in, grabbed some food and waited for the flight. We’d been told that we’d be met at Manta airport (our next destination) and taken to our next host family and sure enough when we landed after our 30 minute flight the driver of the school in Manta was waiting for us.

This concludes our time in the jungle. I’m writing this from our boat in the Galapagos where we’ve seen even more unique wildlife than we did in the jungle, however before the Galapagos we have posts on our next two destinations, the coastal business city of Manta and the hippy surf town of Montañita!

As usual we took far too many photos in the jungle to fit into the text above so here a few more of our best shots:

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

2 thoughts on “Snakes, Spiders & Spanish in the Amazon”

  1. Great news about Tom and Lizzie and it really does highlight the ease of international communication, even if you have to hold your hand above your head (just like Rempstone around the corner from us!!). I don’t really mind insects but I think you’ve seen more than enough now and the snake episode sounds really scary, seems like you are in good hands with your guides though xx

  2. Wow I loved this blog! Very jealous, reading it from gloomy England. The photos look incredible. Look forward to reading about Galapagos soon! Send me a postcard?

    Chris, it looks like you’re aiming at the chickens in your blowpipe photo. And you call yourself a vegetarian. You should have used the blowpipe to defend Alex’s honour at the rock pools!

    Terry looks like a beaut. Not sure I’d be able to sleep knowing he was sharing my room!!!

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