14 marzo 2007

Los Baños de Agua Santa

After my parents and I left the jungle, we headed back West to my favorite little town: Baños. Now those of you who know a bit of Spanish know that “el baño” is “bathroom” but just so you’re not confused, in this context the word means “baths”. This tiny jem is nestled between the magnificent mountain region and the lush green jungle which creates an amazing view from any angle. That’s the great part of going to this place—it is breathtakingly gorgeous. The bad part of going is / was getting there. Since we were coming from the less-developed Eastern part of the country, the roads that we had to take were muddy and full of deep ruts. There was lots of rain on our bus journey so there was of course the fear of landslides. Thankfully we didn’t get buried, but we did get stopped by a landslide that had covered the road. We were stuck for an hour or so, but eventually cars from the other direction started to move across and finally we were on our way again. My parents were increasingly “impressed” with the driving and road situations here. This little girl was toting her younger sister in a sling as many young Ecuadorian children have to do for a number of reasons that involve the parents not being able to take care of their children.Once we got to Baños we checked into our lovely hotel, “La Posada del Arte” which is run by a couple from Chicago. A number of businesses in the town are owned by American Ex-pats. Our first night there we took a tour of the town and then visited the natural hot baths which give the place its name. The baths are heated by the currently active (and lava spewing) volcano, Tunguragua.

The next day after a huge breakfast at the hotel we all got massages. My mom and I also got pedicures. The massages were great (but not as good as my mom) and super cheap—only $20 for an hour!
That afternoon we took a ride on the famous “Chivas” of Ecuador. They are open air busses. Our tour was the “Route of the Waterfalls” that carried us passed four impressive falls and a handful of smaller but still beautiful ones. Here is my favorite waterfall on the tour called the “Manto de la Novia”, the “Bride’s Veil”. It was another great couple of relaxing and fun days we had together. I can’t wait for another reunion with my parents in a few months!

Benancio Grifo

After leaving Monkey Paradise (thinking that life in the jungle couldn’t get any better) we found ourselves traveling deeper into the Amazon region until we hit the Río Misahaulli. To get to our next destination we had to ford the river in a dugout canoe. We didn’t know what to expect about our next stop—I mean, what could a place possibly like that was only reachable by boat and located in an Ecuadorian jungle? Then we turned the bend in the river and saw it…La Casa del Suizo. An amazing sight even if you were traveling down Interstate 64. But just imagine seeing this place when you’re in the jungle—truly amazing.

We were greeted by a number of the local staff members and eventually taken to our room that overlooked the river and the jungle. We had a hammock which I promptly tried out. For lunch (and every meal after that) we had a huge all-you-can-eat buffet of salads, meats, fruits, breads, desserts and exotic juices. After lunch that first day we went on our first jungle excursion.

The man that was our guide was possibly one of the best things about our entire trip. I think I can speak for my parents also and say that we were all incredibly blessed to know Benancio Grifo.

Benancio was all smiles all the time, not in a fake I-have-to-smile-it’s-my-job kind of way, but more in a wise and time worn I-am-grateful-for-my-life-and-am-honored-to-know-you way. So the first day he took us to a spot on the river where he could pan for gold. He got some gold dust and then taught my dad how to do it.

After that we started hiking through the jungle. Benancio, who used to be a shaman, knew every plant and what its medicinal purpose was. It was so incredible to see how God has put cures for everything from bad breath to headaches to ulcers and more right there in the jungle. The pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t like it one bit. Wow was it amazing.

Aside from plants used for medicine there was also a plant used for paint (which you can see displayed here) and a plant that had ants living in it that tasted like lemon. How do I know that? Yep I have eaten a lemon ant. Not to bad…We also had the freshest hearts of palm you can get and saw coca plants, pineapple, papaya and the plants used to make Panama (actually Ecuador) hats.

Here is a woman that we passed on the hike who was washing her clothes in the river.

The conclusion of the jungle hike brought us to a butterfly house where there were thousands of native butterflies filling the air. They would land on the pieces of little banana that were set out and eat the sugar from them. That was the first day.

The second day we took another jungle hike but we went a little deeper. Benancio was quite the jokester and he found a plant that looked like big red lips and put them on each of us. My dad was by far the funniest.
At the end of that hike Benancio took us to his home—a two room wooden shelter on stilts. We met his wife, children and grandchildren. After watching his wife cook with yucca and another typical plant, Benancio performed a shaman ceremony which was supposed to rid the person of all evil spirits. That experience was very humbling. To be in his house first of all was very special, and second to see him at work, doing something that was so important to his life was beautiful.
Nothing could top that experience except maybe floating home on a balsa wood raft. Which we did. My parents and I can now say that we have floated on a hand-made raft down a river that feeds into the Amazon. Hard to believe. And that brings to an end our jungle adventure. Next up: my favorite town in Ecuador.

Monos y Serpientes

So finally Monday morning we left the Marcum's house and headed east toward the Oriente: the Jungle. Our bus ride was an thrilling mix of tight curves and daring heights on muddy and narrow roads. There were threats of landslides every ten meters but that wasn't the scariest part of all. The most "exciting" part was when anthother bus or truck would come down the road toward us. The road wouldn't have passed width regulations for an American sidewalk yet somehow both drivers calmly passed each other (with mere centimeters between) with ease. After six hours of driving on these roads (did I mention that they were main highways?) we arrived at our destination: Orchid Paradise on the Island of Monkeys.
It was only on the edge of the jungle but still the difference between the Quito's terrain and the plants and flowers here were astounding. The air was more humid and there were sounds of scurrying animals and chattering birds everywhere. The man on duty when we arrived was Humberto and he took us to our room. And as we walked down the path to our cabin we quickly realized that we were the only guests on Monkey Island.The solitude could have been a little uncomfortable and disconcerting, but Humberto took it upon himself to make us feel incredibly welcome. We then understood the advantage of being the only guests: preferential treatment.Humberto introduced us to a friend of his named Lucho ("luchar" is "fight" in Spanish). Lucho seemed nice enough but Humberto warned us that his friend was known for stealing camaras and anything else he could easily get his hands on. As you can see in the next picture, my dad became close to Lucho--I think they had a lot in common...

While my dad was becoming friends with theiving monkeys my mom and I decided we wanted a little more danger. So we wrapped a boa constrictor around our necks.

We were on a walk in the jungle and saw this snake slithering on the ground and my mom just picked it up like it was a garden hose. And then like Eve offered it to me. So I took it. Ok, now I'm just telling stories. Sorry. So the truth is that Humberto had this snake in a cage and he showed us how to hold it. It was probably declawed (or whatever the snake version of that is) but it was still pretty risky...feeling.

And here they are standing on the edge of the Amazonian Jungle. They are my parents, not my brother and sister, like everyone in Ecuador thought. I think one time someone even asked me if they were my children. They do look young, but come on. But really, I'm proud to have such young-looking parents becuase I hope that I have inherited the same genes.
Here is Lucho again, getting possessive with my mother. He paid us another visit during dinner and he got in trouble for that. After all who wants a spider monkey jumping on your table while you are trying to eat an amazing $5 filet minon? We really did eat amazing food there on Monkey Island. It was a great day and a half and one night introduction to the jungle. The next day we woke up hearing the sounds of the jungle and got ready to trek deeper into the wild. Our next stop: Casa del Suizo along the Misahualli River.

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