Posts Tagged With: nature

Exploring the Ecuadorian Amazon

There are few places on earth that excite the imagination quite like the Amazon basin. The largest rainforest in the world covers more than two and a half million square miles and is spread across nine different countries. It also boasts an outstanding array of flora and fauna, a lot of which, including the mighty anaconda, is unique to the region. The vast jungle is also home to indigenous tribes who remain remarkably detached from the modern world. Put all of these elements together and it’s obvious why the Amazon is so beguiling for travellers and adventurers. Tours to the rainforest can easily be organised from Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The Cuyabeno National Park is located close to the Colombian border, and tourists can take four, five or six day trips into the Amazon there. Back in 2007, I took the five day tour into the jungle. Eight years on, it still remains one of my all-time favourite travel experiences.

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Day 1

The overnight bus from Quito arrived in Lago Agrio at 7:30am. This gave us two and a half hours until our transport arrived, which was about two hours and fifteen minutes too long to spend in Lago Agrio. This is not a city you’d want to hang around in. When we departed, we endured a bone shaking three hour journey to El Puente, the starting point for the tour. These were some of the worst roads I experienced in all of South America. Finally though, we arrived and were herded straight onto a canoe. A two hour journey down the river took us to the Samona jungle lodge. This journey was rather more pleasurable. Chirpy and colourful macaws sang in the trees and we also spotted three different species of monkeys. That evening, after settling into the lodge, we were taken out to the Laguna Cuyabeno where we swam and watched the sunset. At first I was sceptical. Aren’t there piranhas in the Amazon?! Don’t they like eating people?! Not according to our guide Jairo. He told us that piranhas are like sharks and will only bite you if you’re already bleeding. Good enough for me! In we jumped and swam in a lagoon in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Truly amazing.

Day 2

The second day commenced in a rather challenging manner. After breakfast, we were taken out on the motor boat and deposited a considerable distance down the river. We were then placed in traditional dugout canoes and told that we were going to paddle back to the lodge. This was difficult, especially because of the fierce sun, but also massively rewarding. Along the way, we caught fleeting glimpses of pink freshwater dolphins and the rarely seen South American Coati. The giant anaconda remained elusive though. In the evening we watched a mesmerising lightning display over the lagoon before embarking on a night hike through the forest, which was teeming with tarantulas and scorpions. Quite how our immensely knowledgeable guide, Jairo, could navigate his way through the dense dark forest so easily continues to be a source of wonder.

Day 3

Day three was the highlight of the expedition. In the morning we travelled upriver and met a local tribe, called the Sione. There we were shown how they farmed and made a living for themselves in an incredibly unforgiving environment. From the Sione, we moved onto the Cofan tribe, where we were hugely privileged to meet a Shamen. Wearing his traditional dress he talked to us about the training that he had done to become a Shamen, and the hallucinogenic drinks that the Shamen use to induce a higher state of consciousness. This was followed by a demonstration of how he heals people on the cook from our lodge. It’s debatable whether or not he cured the cook’s bad back, but it was certainly intriguing to watch. In the evening we returned to the lagoon where we went piranha fishing! They may not have attacked me whilst I was swimming, but they certainly went for the bait. I was lucky enough to catch a massive one, but certainly not brave enough to hold it! Its razor sharp teeth looked like they could cut through human bone very easily. This was no problem for Jairo who held it with ease.  He was a proper man of the jungle!

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Day 4

Our final full day began with an exhilarating three hour trek into the jungle. It was hard work but immense fun. The route took us through creeks and swamps and on a number of occasions Jairo had to hack at the foliage with his machete to find us a path. I got to fulfil an ambition by swinging from a vine, and then later in the trek we also ate ants from the bark of a tree. Not for the faint hearted! The trek did also have educational value as well, as Jairo explained to us which plants had medicinal qualities and what they could be used for. For example, many of the indigenous people believe that the milk that can be obtained from the bark of the Quinina tree can cure malaria. That evening we paddled the dugout canoes in another sadly futile attempt to find an anaconda. Our efforts to see the great snake were not rewarded. However, we did see a Toucan, the symbol of the Amazon region. Most impressively of all we were treated to the magnificent sight of a solitary vulture circling low looking for carrion. Another unforgettable moment.

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Day 5

All great adventures have to come to an end, and so unfortunately did my mini adventure. I wasn’t even looking forward to getting back to Quito, let alone having to kill a few hours in Lago Agrio. In what seemed like a consolation prize, we were taken out on a final hike through the forest, before the boat journey back to El Puente. Sitting on the boat I mused on the memories of a wonderful five days. In that time I had met indigenous tribespeople, felt like an adventurer and seen an array of wildlife that, in Ecuador, could only be bettered in the Galapagos. The Amazon didn’t just meet my expectations, it exceeded them.

TRAVEL TIPS

This article was originally written eight years ago for a sadly now defunct newspaper called The Ecuador Reporter. Whilst I have made every effort to ensure that the information is still correct, I haven’t been able to find current prices. I’m happy to recommend Gulliver’s travels (http://www.gulliver.com.ec/) and Trans Esmeraldas, the bus company that I travelled from Quito to Lago Agrio with. (http://www.transportesesmeraldas.com/portal/) However, if you want specific prices you’ll have to find them for yourselves!

Categories: Ecuador, Exploring the Amazon, South America | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another side of Penang

As evocative nicknames go, Penang’s claim to be the “Pearl of the Orient” takes some beating. But is it accurate? That name conjures up images of pristine beaches and wild untamed jungles. There’s a lot to love about Penang, mainly the outstanding food and a wealth of cultural attractions, but unspoilt it most certainly is not. The entire East side of the island has been massively overdeveloped. This has led to subsequent environmental problems, including landslides, traffic congestion and air pollution. Not what one would imagine the Pearl of the Orient to be like! The West side of the island is an entirely different proposition though. There, high rise condos are replaced by traditional fishing villages. Glitzy shopping malls are nowhere to seen. Instead, paddy fields and mangrove forests dominate the landscape. It’s like travelling back to a time when Penang’s claim to be the Pearl of the Orient was justified.DSCF6038

Prior to this January, I’d lived in Penang for a year and a half but hadn’t yet visited the less explored side of the island. This was until a colleague recommended a company called Explore Balik Pulau who conduct guided cycling tours around that area. As my brother, also a cycling enthusiast, was coming to visit, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. To get to Balik Pulau we first had to drive to Teluk Bahang at the northwest tip of the island and then turn inland. The road from there to Balik Pulau is high and winding and not for the faint of stomach! I felt rather queezy by the time we arrived. The Explore Balik Pulau office is located on the main road, between the village of Sungai Pinang and the town of Balik Pulau. We began our tour from there and first cycled to a traditional Malay stilt village. Our guide, Eddie Chew, explained that in days gone by that if one of the villagers had wanted to move house, they would do exactly that! They would uproot the house from where it stood and the entire community would lend a helping hand to move it.

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From the stilt village we cycled along the banks of a small river, where beef cattle were grazing, until we reached a Chinese fishing village. There wasn’t a lot to see here apart from a charming little Taoist temple. However, the main point of interest was just how different life is from the other side of the island. It’s highly unlikely that the residents of Georgetown could leave their front doors wide open when they go out! The fishermen also seemed to use very basic boats and tools. This was subsistence living, not big industry fishing.

After a short time in the village we got back on the bikes and continued cycling. Penang can sometimes seem like quite a large island. Our next destination showed us that this certainly isn’t the case. Eddie led us to a point on the coast where we could see the northern tip of the island in one direction, and the southern tip in another. The sea seemed quite choppy so we didn’t stray too close to the edge. You wouldn’t want to get swept out to sea here. The closest landmass is Sumatra, two hundred kilometres away to the west.

For the next leg of the journey we cycled back inland to a mangrove forest, where we got off the bikes and took a short walk. Then it was onwards to the best part of the trip; the paddy fields. It was absolutely surreal to think that this was the same island as the concrete jungle to the East. Along the road we stopped for refreshment. A local Malay woman had set up stall under a tree in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. There she sold fresh coconut and sugar cane juice for 1 ringgit a cup. Not only was this ridiculously cheap but it was also wonderfully refreshing and sustained us for the final leg of the journey. As we left her stall, the sun was beginning to set over the paddy fields making for some spectacular views. Some local kids seemed beguiled by our presence. In Tanjung Bungah or Batu Ferringhi a white face wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. This was another reminder of just how different the west side of the island is.

It was a short ride from the paddy fields back to the office. In total we had cycled fourteen kilometres and seen a great variety of different places. What I enjoyed the most about the tour was the sense that this was a side of Penang that very few tourists, or even locals, actually see. To be honest, I hope it stays that way.

TRAVEL TIPS

The tour was extremely cheap at just 30 RM per person. You can contact Explore Balik Pulau via their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/explorebalikpulau?fref=ts or by calling them on +60 16 452 2100

Categories: Asia, Balik Pulau cycling, Malaysia, Penang | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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