Thursday 11 November 2004

Ecuador - The Amazon Rainforest

 29 September - 10 November 2004

Having spent 10 days in Namibia I had caught the travel bug. Looking on the internet I came across a website for GVI - Global Vision International, who organise volunteer projects all over the world. Having looked at all the projects and trips they organise I finally decided on a 5 week expedition in the Amazonion Rainforest. Somewhere I've wanted to visit since I was tiny.

The Expedition
The aim of my trip to Ecuador was to join the GVI expedition into the Amazon Rainforest. Here we would be drawing up a species list for the Pavacachi area. Once they have a completed list for the 53,000ha reserve, the Community who live in the area will be able to encourage tourists to visit the area, saving it from deforestation. 

I was going for 5 weeks but about half of the group were staying for 10. The group consisted of 5 guys and 8 girls a mix of ages from 17 to 31. We had 3 staff members too. Once we were out in the forest we worked quite closely with the Community - they were our guides and helped us with our cooking, we helped them to learn English while they tough us Spanish. But first I had to get to Ecuador....

I arrived in Quito at 06:30 in the morning after a 19hr journey from London. Armed with the name of the hostle I was to meet everyone at - Hostle Cipres - I set off into town. Quito is, at 2850m the worlds 2nd highest capital meaning that altitude sickness is a real problem - I was lucky, only feeling slightly dizzy with a headache. At the hostle I met for the first time the people I'd be spending the next 5 weeks with. 
The equator at La Mitad del Mundo

Some of the guys had decided to visit the equator and asked if I'd like to join them. Ecuador has 2 equators - one that was measured in 1736 - La Mitad del Mundo and the real equator as decided by GPS - Museo Solar Inti Nan, they are about 200m apart so we went to both. At the real equator they have experiments to prove you are there - it was quite fascinating. 
The one thing I really loved about Quito was the buses. There are no bus stops - you just flag down a bus going in the right direction. The buses never stop they just slow down enough for you to jump on and off. This happens all over Ecuador. The driving on the other hand is dead scary, best just to look out the windows and enjoy the views. 
We stayed 2 nights in Quito and in that time the weather was pretty good, though its quite cold being so high up. I would have liked more time to explore but I think we were all glad to be moving on, the forest beckoned...

Banos was our next stop. It's a small friendly tourist town about 4hrs south of Quito. It is built on the slopes of Volcano Tungurahua which has been active since 1999. 
On the way into the forest we stayed for 2 nights in Posada El Marques. This was really close to the waterfall and hot baths - a really lovely hostle. Breakfast wasn't included but this just meant a short walk into town to the market to buy rolls and fruit. 
On the way back we stayed in La Floresta. I stayed for 4 nights before heading back to Quito and home. This hostle was even better than the last, the rooms were huge and it had a lovely garden in the middle. Out of all the places that we stayed, Banos is definitely my favourite. It's a really good place to chill out. If you want good food go to Casa Hood - Brilliant, and they show movies in the back room. Don't get this confused with Cafe Hood - the food there was bad and the service worst. Once we'd eaten we found the Jack Rock Cafe a good place to dance. We had several very wicked drunken nights here. Even better to finish the night off you can go to the baths. These are open air and fed by hot springs. La Piscina de la Virgen is open between 04:30 - 17:00 and 18:00 - 22:00. 
From Banos it is also possible to do loads of activitys including white water rafting, cycling to Puyo and going up the Volcano. We cycled down the volcano but our view of the peak was blocked by cloud. The huge cloud of ash was visible though. 
After 2 nights we made our way to Puyo. (but not by bike)

Puyo is one of the last real towns before you get into the rainforest - it's a real frontier town. 
It's a 2hr bus ride from Banos - its worth taking the trip (or biking) just for the views - make sure you sit on the right hand side of the bus. This is one of the scariest journeys we made as the road is right on the side of the mountains but the views are breath taking. We stayed one night at Hostle el Colibri which was small but friendly. Puyo itself is quite small, consisting of just 2 long streets. 
While we where there we visited Centro Fatima which is a wildlife research centre, here we saw most of the animals that we hoped to see in the rainforest. I loved it as all the animals are free to roam, you could tell they are happy. 
We only stayed over night in Puyo so we would be ready when the call came in from the air strip in Shell - a small village close by, that the weather was good enough to fly. The weather is always a problem - due to this we were all ready to go at 08:00 but didn't get the ok until 11:00. Using our favourite mode of transport - the open backed pick up truck taxi we made the 10 minute journey to the airstrip. 
Here we were all weighed along with our bags. We had already been told before leaving the UK that our total weight allowance including your own body weight was 104kg or 230lbs. I was weighting in at 13st 7lbs so well within the limit, but they were very strict about it. The plane, a tiny 10 seater was then loaded up with all our stuff plus a months worth of food and supply's. The plane was to make 2 trips and I was on the first....

The Pavacachi reserve is about a 45 minute flight east from Puyo, then a 10 minute trip down river in dugout canoe. It is right on the Rio Curaray close to the Peru boarder. Our camp which consisted of 3 cabins and a dinning area with kitchen was next to a stream which fed into the river and a short walk from the Community. 
The first couple of days were filled with training - health and safety, first aid, science etc and then we were into it! Mostly our days looked like this;- 05:00 breakfast, 
05:45 leave on transect, 
09:30-11:00 return from transect and write up what we'd seen, 
12:00 lunch, 
15:00-17:00 afternoon activity, 
18:00 dinner, 
20:00 bed? 
Transects consisted of walking a grid system in the forest. Each transect should be about 2km and should take about 2hr to walk, though most were closer to two and a half. In total we would walk somewhere between 7k and 10k including the 2k of transect each day, walking fast into the forest to catch everything out and about. 
While doing the actual transect we would walk more slowly and note down all the bird calls we heard (and could identify), what birds sounded like that we couldn't identify and any mammals, frogs, snakes or anything else we saw. Once back in camp and refreshed from a swim in the stream we would write up what we had seen and heard that morning. This could take hours if you'd seen or heard a lot that you couldn't identify straight away. But with the help of reference books and hundreds of bird calls recorded on mini disk we did normally complete this task. 
We didn't always do transect though. At least once a week a group would leave camp at 05:00 and go out into the dark forest to record the dawn chorus. This meant being in position by 05:30 and recording 2 sets of 10 minutes. The rest of the day was then dedicated to listening to the recordings and working out which birds were singing.
In the afternoons we were kept busy as well. We regularly went out into the forest to do frogging, where we would spend an hour or so looking for frogs in the undergrowth, then measure them and write them up in the field, taking a photo if possable. Without our guides we'd never have caught as many as we did. 
Or we could do a Local Bird Survey either around the camp or floating down the river in the canoes. This was a lovely way to see the forest and the birds. 
We also did teaching twice a week. This was one to one with our guides, teaching them English that would be useful to them when tourists come. They in turn tought us Spanish.
This all makes it sound like it was all hard work, which it was but we did have 'fun' activitys too. On two weekends we visited Oxbow lakes. These are lakes made by the river changing course and are full of piranha and other fish. On our first visit to one down stream, we took hammocks to sleep in and cooking gear and had a good meal of fried piranha and yucka chips. On the second trip up stream we had a survival weekend, meaning we had to catch out own dinners and make our own shelters. 
The Community came on both these trips and we couldn't have done without them. With their help we made a big shelter for all the girls to sleep in, and I caught my first and most likely only piranha! (Piranha are very tasty but full of lots of tiny bones which make it hard to eat - but if you haven't eaten all day they are very good) 
We were also shown how to make cords for making bracelets and necklaces from the fibers from a plant. And on one occasion we were allowed to sit in the forest 'by our selves'. This meant walking along one of the paths and dropping people off at 50m intervals so you can't see each other but a quick blow on the whistle will bring people running if you need them. It was amazing to sit there for half an hour by your self. I didn't see much, just a hummingbird but it was good just to experience the forest without rushing to be somewhere or concentrating on birds.

As you might imagine a rainforest should be pretty humid and you'd be right. At camp we'd be about 80% - 85% humidity but as soon as you stepped into the forest you could feel the difference as it went up to somewhere between 95% - 99%. The temperature was mostly somewhere between 25c and 30c, dropping to maybe as low as 21c at night. 
All though it is a 'rain' forest we were only stopped from going out in the morning once. Mostly it rained in the afternoon or evening. But not always. If it was raining though we couldn't go out into the forest as it is too dangerous. The weight of water on foliage means that trees and branches can come down at any time. 
I was also amazed by the amount of thunder and lightning we had. Quite often I'd be standing outside on a perfectly clear night looking at the stars and see flickering of lightning from miles away. I don't think a day passed without some evidence of a storm somewhere - even if it was just the river rising when we'd had no rain! 
As we had no electricity we worked our day to fit the day light hours. Between 05:30 and 18:00. Torches were essential.

Fashion in the Forest
Even though it was so hot and humid all the time, we spent all out time covered up. Anything that could, was out to eat us - mosquito, black fly, sandflys, ants the list goes on. The bites themselves, though maybe itchy aren't the real problem, its the diseases that they carry that are. 
This means that long sleeved shirts and long trousers were essential as were socks with our trousers tucked in. To finish the look off we wore flip flops, or when walking in the forest wellie boots. The only time this came off was in bed under our mosy nets (though there was still the possibility of vampire bats biting though our nets) or when we went swimming/washing in the stream.

Camp duty
So as I've said the Community helped out round camp but the duty was really ours. Everyone helped - everyone was on camp duty at least once a week in a pair. This included 

  • cooking breakfast (porridge), lunch and dinner for the whole group - what you cooked was up to you but what supply's we had were a big influence (no meat) 
  • collecting water a) to flush the toilets with b) to cook and wash up with and c) to drink. Drinking water came in 4 ways - the best was rain water, but it had to rain quite hard for that. Filtered water was good too but that took time. Boiled water was good if you didn't mind a smoky flavour, then chlorinated if you don't mind drinking water that tastes like a swimming pool! 
  • cleaning up around camp was also part of this duty. I quite liked camp duty. It was quite a long day - up at 04:00 to start breakfast and get the fire started so there would be tea and coffee for everyone, with a late finish doing the washing up, but it did mean that you had the camp to your self in the morning while everyone else was out on transect.

Going home
On the 3rd November after 4 weeks in the rainforest we all flew out. For people there for 10 weeks this was a mid phase break to give them a little chilling time. For people like me on 5 weeks it was time to go home or go travelling. And there were new people coming in to take my place for the last 5 weeks. 
We went straight from the plane to Banos where I spent 4 nights enjoying myself before getting the bus to Quito for a night and caching my flight home. 
Its sad leaving after 4 weeks with a group of people - knowing that they will be going back in on Monday for the next 4 weeks without me. With the time difference I'll just be having my morning coffee break as they are getting up to porridge. 
I've really enjoyed my time in Ecuador. I've loved going round the towns and the rainforest was totally amazing! 
It has been a tough 4 weeks but I have no regrets about going - I've learnt so much about the forest and life there as well as about myself. Its made me appreciate what I have in the UK and how much I really don't need.

Notes - Money
Two things I wish I'd known before I left. 
1) When ordering money in the UK try and get the lowest denominations possable - 5s and 1s are best though a few 10s will be ok. Getting 50s and even 20s changed was an impossible task even in the banks. It does mean wondering around with big wads of money but it means you can buy things.
2) To get out of Ecuador you are required to pay $25 in cash. I had carefully bugedeted my money with out knowing this fact - but was luckily told before I got to the airport. I would have had a big problem if this hadn't been bought to my attention.