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Southern Ecuador and El Oriente (Sep. 2000)

posted Nov 15, 2008, 7:28 PM by Gerick Bergsma

I have begun to question modern medicine.  Sure it has lengthened our lifespan, and improved the quality of our lives immeasurably, but what has it really done?  Other than fatten the pockets of drug company owners and buy new lab coats for thousands of chemists in sterile labs nationwide, the little white pills we pop do little more than many natural products.  What if I told you that for less than a dollar, you could cure just about every ailment known to man?  I know, because I have been introduced to a new and wonderful product, Indian Cat Claw!  I boarded a bus leaving Quito, bound for Ambato, when a short mustached man climbed up the stairs, and forever changed my views on human health.  He introduced himself to the crowd of southbound bus passengers, and then entered into a 15 minute tirade touting the virtues of the miraculous cream that he peddled including demonstrations of many of its uses.  Made from the finest ingredients (I can only hope that "cat" didn't refer to tiger), this eucalypt smelling ointment could cure rheumatism, swelling, muscle pain, headache, sinus pressure, flu, chest pains, back pain, sore eyes, deafness, altitude sickness, sore throat, cough, indigestion and upset stomach (among many other diseases and sicknesses I couldn't quite understand).  Plus, as a special promotion from the lab that produces Indian Cat Claw, the passengers on the bus could enjoy all these healthful benefits for only 60 cents per tin, or get two for one dollar!  Of course, during his animated demonstrations, he waved the open canister in front of my face so many times that I had already inhaled a large dose of the aromatic mixture, and felt no need to purchase any more.  I have to admit, I have felt quite healthy ever since.  Move over snake oil.


My bus ride continued for several hours beyond the medicine man's preaching, and I was quite amused by the myriad of vendors that climbed aboard at each stop.  Most were vending snacks and drinks, and kept me well entertained well past Ambato to my final stop, Baños (Jeff, you are still El Jefe, Baños is awesome!).  Baños is a lovely town at the foot of Tungurahua, a volcano that had seen its most recent activity about a week before my arrival.  Unfortunately, the activity had ceased by the time I arrived, but the town was spectacularly set amidst lush mountains and numerous waterfalls.  As soon as I arrived, I set out across the river Postasi, up a small footpath into the surrounding hills.  I walked for hours, enjoying the lovely pastoral setting and watching the indigenous farmers descend by foot and burro-back into town with their wares.  I think that I walked a little farther than most tourists, though, as I also got a good look at the city's dump.  At first I noticed a delta shape leading from a cliff wall towards the river and thought it was a landslide, but then I saw the garbage trucks backing right up to the cliff, and dumping the trash directly into the river!  I returned to town with enough daylight left to climb to a statue and cross perched high atop another nearby hill, from which I was rewarded with beautiful views of the town, several waterfalls, and a lovely sunset.  That evening, I befriended Timoteo, a native Shuar who worked in the hotel.  I originally approached him to ask if he had any insight into any of the guided trips that were offered in town.  He knew nothing about the town or the mountains, but instead we spent the evening talking about the rainforest where he lived, and told me how I could reach the Amazon quite easily from nearby Puyo. As I sank into bed (quite literally, the next morning the mattress was in the shape of a V, but I guess I can't complain for $1.50 a night with private bath) I was already quite excited to continue my explorations the next day.


Morning came, and I made my way to the home of Angel Aldaz, a local guide who leads horseback trips into the mountains.  He was going to take me into the hills at the foot of Tungurahua, at the edge of the Parque Nacional Sangay, and hopefully to some good views of the volcano.  We saddled up, and started our way through town.  Mr. Aldaz, though, seemed quite fond of speed, and kept trying to get my horse to go faster and faster.  I know that I am the son of an equine veterinarian, and the brother of an award winning equestrian, but I honestly am a terrible rider.  I was holding on for dear life, trying to keep my feet from going through the stirrups.  We galloped out of town, through the nearby sugarcane fields, and up the first hill to a waterfall.  By this point my horse was extremely sweaty and tired, and we stopped at the falls to rest.   Mr. Aldaz seemed quite proud of the fact that we beat all of the other tourists to the falls, and watered the horses while I clamored up the rocks around the falls.  As soon as another group of tourists arrived, though, he was ready to be on the saddle and continue on our way.  We continued up a steep road into the surrounding countryside, with my horse complaining the whole way.  It apparently didn't like the weight it was carrying, and refused to go faster than a slow walk.  This, of course, only elicited continuous prompting from Mr. Aldaz to go faster.  At one point my horse stopped, turned to look at me as though it was saying "you have got to be joking," and refused to continue.  Mr. Aldaz then decided it was time to switch horses.  The other horse, much younger, and probably not so wise, started at a gallop up the steep incline, and soon tired itself out, and we settled for the walk up the rest of the mountain.  We stopped at a lookout high over the city, which, except for the cloud cover, would have yielded wonderful views of the volcano.  We rested until we saw another group of tourists passed us on the trail, at which point we again galloped up the mountain to pass them.  The views were spectacular despite the obscured volcano, and we descended another narrow and very steep trail back into town.  The rocks on the trail did not prove to be adequate traction for the horses, though, and several times my horse seemed to uncontrollably gain speed descending down the narrowly twisting path.  Eventually we would stop, followed by the horse looking at me much like the first horse had looked at me coming up the hill, and then it would only hesitantly continue after much prodding.


The next day I prepared for the jungle.  I bought some rubber boots, a poncho, toilet paper, and a liter of cooking oil, all the things that Timoteo had advised me to bring.  I was going to stay at his father's house, and Timoteo had given me explicit directions on how to get there, take the bus to Puyo, from puyo get on the bus going to Macas, and get off at Kilometer 48.  Armed with that knowledge, and a letter of introduction from Timoteo to his father, I hopped on the next bus bound for Puyo.  Now I know that every traveler has a story about public transportation (heck, I just related the story about the Cat Claw salesman), but the trip to Puyo warrants special attention.  It started normally enough.  The lady with the chickens was seated behind me, alongside a group of gossipy teens.  The two young men in front of me thought they were rock stars, singing along with all the American songs on the radio, usually in their own incoherent versions of the English lyrics.  The gentleman across the aisle from me was extremely annoying, simultaneously holding conversation with Aquavino, a man four rows up, arguing with the driver over his choice of radio stations, fighting with the gossipy girls behind him who he crushed when he reclined his seat, loudly stating his political views over the dollarization (more about that later), and arguing with my seatmate about having his window closed.  In his only act of consideration towards any of the other passengers, he did offer his suitcase (which he had placed right in the center aisle) as a seat to a boy who was standing in the aisle way.  The boy later decided that my knee would make a comfortable pillow, and fell asleep with his head on my lap.  Despite the characters seated around me, I was quickly absorbed in the beautiful countryside we were driving through.  The road to Puyo follows the river Postasi, descending through the river valley into the Oriente beyond.  Much of the time we were on narrow stretches of dirt road, occasionally interrupted by even narrower stretches with vertical cliffs up on one side and down on the other.  In many of these sections there was evidence of past rockslides, and we forded several streams along the way.  The best part came when we literally drove through a waterfall that cascaded onto the roadway.  I suppose it saved the driver a bus wash, but it made me seriously question the integrity of the roadbed.


I finally made it to Puyo, and boarded the bus to Macas.  Slightly less remarkable than the drive to Puyo, but I was a little apprehensive, as my only directions were to exit at Kilometer 48.  I told the driver, and the man seated in front of me (a tour guide who claimed to have hosted Neil Armstrong when he visited Ecuador), and both were very helpful. Fortunately, it happened that Domingo, one of Timoteo's brothers, was aboard, and I made it to Kilometer 48 with no difficulty.


At kilometer 48 stood a house, surrounded by miles of nothing.  Domingo and I walked through the fence and across the bare dirt into the kitchen building opposite the road.  Inside the kitchen building, I met Ernesto Vargas, Timoteo's father, who welcomed me to his home and introduced me to his three eldest sons, Domingo, whom I'd already met, Jaime and Jose.  He never introduced the women who sat behind him, chewing on roots and spitting them into a bucket, nor the several children that stared at me through various windows and doorways.  A guinea pig scurried across the room.  I gave Ernesto the letter from Domingo, who handed it to one of his sons to read to him.  They talked in their native language and laughed a little bit, and then I sat and talked with Ernesto and his sons for a while.  He explained to me that the 'community' consisted of Ernesto, his two wives, and most of his 20 children.  Timoteo, the oldest child, lived in Baños, and Jaime spent most of his time in Puyo, where he was studying to become a teacher.  The other children, ranging in age from 2 to 20, scurried about in various stages of dress doing their chores around the house.  The Shuars were originally known for their fierce warriors, and their practice of shrinking human heads, but now live a more sedentary life.  The community-family had been given a protectorship by the Ecuadorian government of over 14,000 hectares of pristine rainforest, where they mostly farmed and collected their food from the forest.   Ernesto was obviously quite proud of his expansive back yard, and told me about how he had built a school for his children, and had a German scientist that studied the local wildlife.  He appointed his son Jose as my guide, and sent me off for an afternoon walk through the forest.


Let me first say that although "rainforest" is a term loosely applied to many types of tropical humid forest, it certainly applied to the forest we were in.  We were no more than ten minutes into our walk when the downpour began.  I was soaked in a matter of minutes, but in the humid lowlands, it was actually rather refreshing.  I wish I could say my wallet (with my money and passport) could say the same.  No problems, though, I was wearing the rubber boots that Timoteo had advised me to bring, and my feet were dry, at least until I stepped into a mud thigh deep.  Despite the wet and very slippery terrain, the secondary forest that we walked through was lush gorgeous.  Jose pointed out all sorts of medicinal plants and plants for "visions about your future" which I politely declined.  He told me that I was the first American he had ever guided, and that in one of his own "visions" he had seen himself guiding an American and speaking fluent English.  He continued to demonstrate the English he knew, and we continued teaching each other bits of English and Shuar.  The goal of our walk was a viewpoint from where the Postasi River valley stretches before us with a background of faintly visible volcanoes.  The forest stretches for as far as I could see, without so much as a hint of any form of civilization.  Directly below us, the river's route had left a horseshoe lake, after which the unspoiled grandeur of the primary forest spread into infinity.


It continued to pour on us, so we retreated to the small school, and the residence of a German tourist staying in the area.  We then returned to the Vargas home, where I was served a VERY filling meal of two kinds of Platano (Plantain), Yucca (a starchy potato-like root) and Potato.  The Shuars apparently ate very starchy meals, and seemed to know only two methods of cooking, frying and boiling.  Later in the afternoon Jose took me to some nearby ponds where his brothers were fishing.  They caught several small fish, and they gave them so me to take back to the kitchen.  My first contact with the women of the family was to take the fish to them and tell them to cook them (which the brothers thought was very funny).  Our second meal that night consisted of some bits of fish, more platano and yucca.  I then settled under my mosquito net for a nice sleep.


Morning came, and I was greeted by a beautiful sunny day.  Jose was not up yet (he had gone to a cousin's birthday party in a nearby community and was quite hung over), so I spent the morning playing with the family's parrots that ran around loose in the front yard, and refused to leave anyone alone.  I also admired their collection of guinea pigs (for Cuy), chickens and ducks (for similar purposes).  They seemed rather amused when I told them that my family also owned chickens, but that we did not eat them.  Several of the older children were playing soccer and most of the younger children were staring at me when Ernesto approached me and offered me a large gourd full of Chiche, the drink that the women were preparing the night before by spitting chewed bits of root (something similar to Yucca they told me, but more bitter) into a pot.  He told me that this was fresh, and was often drunk before long trips into the jungle as a meal, but that usually it was allowed to ferment.  I tasted it, and almost coughed the luke-warm ooze back up-I really can not describe the taste-but with the entire community now staring at me, I felt obliged to slowly drink it all down.  Despite my dread at having to consume another bowlful, my drinking of the first bowl was apparently a sign that I liked it, and they continued to offer me prodigious amounts throughout my stay.  I would usually force down one bowl, and then politely decline.  After a couple of bowls, while I can not say I liked it, I grew tolerant of this very unique drink.


When Jose arose, we departed into the forest.  We were to hike into the jungle, and spend the night in a Cabana in the forest, then return the next day.  They told me that it was an easy hike, and that passage to the Cabana was only a two hour walk (to be read to the tune of Gilligan's island).  We started through some farmed areas the family kept behind the house, passed through some narrow stands of secondary forest, and soon entered the primary forest beyond: absolutely spectacular.  The trees towered around us, with vines descending into the understory around us.  Everything was lush and green, and the continuous sound of insects and birds gave brought the entire forest to life.  We really did not see much wildlife, other than an occasional bird, insect, or iguana or armadillo hole, but the scenery was gorgeous.  We continued up the path a little ways to a stream, where landslides had obscured the trail, so we walked along the stream for a ways.  We then climbed up the bank and descended a steep slope towards another stream.  We then climbed up another very steep hill, cutting our way through some dense underbrush.  This continued for another three hours, struggling up extremely steep slopes, and sliding down the other side, hacking our way through the jungle, and climbing over fallen trees and up river banks, before Jose finally told me that we had lost the trail.  Not a problem, though, he knew the jungle.  We had already snacked on some fruit that he had found on the way, collected sap from a tree that he could use to start a fire, smeared termites over ourselves as insect repellent (termites by the way can also be used to treat athletes foot), and had seen countless plants that could cure anything from machete wounds to menstrual cramps. We continued to wander the jungle, until eventually we found the trail.  This proved little better than wandering the trailless jungle, as the definition of a trail seemed to be any area where the mud was too deep for trees to grow.  We slipped and slid our way down the tractionless path, which was only made worse with the downpours that again began.  At one point, it began to rain so hard that Jose cut down a palm tree with his machete, cut off all the leaves, and constructed a make-shift shelter where we waited for several minutes.  We then continued through the soaking rain, and after five hours of walking, we finally made it to the Cabana.  While I tried to dry out under the small section of non-leaking roof, Jose ran into the forest and collected platano and heart of palm for dinner.  He then started a fire under the floor of the cabana, and we cooked and ate a delicious soup of palm, with fried platano (spiced with a VERY hot pepper that he found).  WE collected rain water for our tea, and used what sap remained after starting the fire to make a small torch for light.  We were truly living off the jungle.  Jose had brought nothing but a change of clothes, a blanket and a machete, and collected everything we ate and drank from the forest.  It therefore surprised me when he pulled out a GPS unit.  He handed it to me and said that it had been donated to the community by the German scientist, but that nobody knew how to use it.  He asked me if I could tell him how far we were from the house.  One of the waypoints already programmed into the unit was the house, so after finally getting a reading, I was shocked to discover that it had taken us five hours to traverse a three kilometer straight line distance!  It was still raining hard, so we settled under the small patch of dry roof, and he told me shuar legends into the night.  We slept on the bare wood floor, out of which crawled some of the largest cockroaches I have ever seen, with a chorus of insects and the sound of raindrops as our lullaby.


The next morning, we again woke up to a beautiful sunny day.  As Jose prepared our breakfast of platano and squash, I wandered about the forest near the cabana admiring the fascinating array of insects.  Most of you know my fetish for birds, but even I have to admit that the arthropods were the stars of the show.  Beautiful butterflies, colorful locusts, giant cicadas, and some of the most interesting spiders that I had ever seen abounded.  I saw more different species of insects in that one morning walk than I think I had ever seen in my life!  After breakfast, we again departed for a short walk to a nearby waterfall.  We went down more slippery mud paths to a small stream that dropped into a narrow canyon with a beautiful pool at the bottom.  We waded along the stream a little ways, and then returned up more muddy paths to a nearby ridge, where we found a vine where we swung through the trees Tarzan style.  We stopped in a small clearing for a while for a nice snack of ants (they were actually quite refreshing, tasting a lot like lemon), and then descended to another, larger river with a large waterfall.  Our final descent to the large river followed the streambed of a small tributary, and ended with a small cascade of its own.  The only way down was to tie a rope to a tree, and use it to climb down the small cascade.  We repelled down the cascade to the bottom of the much larger waterfall, and bathed in the pool at its base.  It certainly provided the best water pressure I have had in South America, and the shower was quite refreshing.  Ironically I was as wet getting out of the river as I was getting in, but I felt much better having a cool shower under the waterfall in the humid heat.


From the falls, we climbed back up our rope, and started our hike back to the house, a much quicker trip than the hike out.  The forest has a much different character on a sunny day, and I enjoyed the scenery even more.  On the way back, Jose painted my face with a local plant (what is with natives and face painting around here?) whose color is most similar to an orange highlighter.  This time I did avoid consuming any of the myriad of hallucinogenic plants that Jose pointed out along the way, and did not try the small frog that he caught that he said was edible.


We returned to the house, and I stayed and had dinner with the family (a lot more Chiche, and more starch).  We then said our goodbyes, and I prepared to leave.  Jose decided to go to baños with me to see his brother, and reversing roles, I became his guide through the relative urbanization of Puyo and Baños.  He had been to baños once before, never any farther, and did not know where his brother worked, so we returned together, and I spent another night in Baños. 


From baños, I made my way to Cuenca, Ecuador's third largest city, and one of its loveliest.  I stayed in a hostel across the street from the cathedral, and I spent my first day walking along the riverbank and exploring some Incan ruins and a museum nearby.  The ruins were not terribly expansive, but they were an interesting introduction to the archeological remnants I will undoubtedly find in Peru, and the museum was very good.  Later at the hotel, I discovered that the hotel owner had worked as an archeologist at the site I had visited, and he spent the evening describing the work, and telling me the significance of the various buildings.  The following day I explored the nearby towns of Gualaceo, Chordeleg and Sigsig.  All are pleasant towns in the mountains near Cuenca, although midweek, when I went, they are fairly quiet.  I enjoyed a nice riverside walk between Gualaceo and Chordeleg (where there are tons of gold and silver shops where local artisans use materials from the nearby mines), and spent most of the day just haplessly wandering about. 


Another night in Cuenca, and then I made the long journey to Vilcabamba, where I was going to explore the paramo of the Parque Nacional Podocarpus.  I stayed in a lovely place called Cabanas Rio Yambala, whose private reserve of Las Palmas is supposed to house several hundred species of birds.  I inquired about horseback excursions into the park, and spent a lovely night marveling at the fireflies twinkling all around the gurgling Rio Yambala outside the veranda of my cabana.  Unfortunately, the next day I was quite sick (I think the hotdog in the bus terminal the day before is the culprit), and spent the next several days chilling on a hammock on my veranda.  Quite a nice place to recuperate, admittedly, but I never made it to the national park.  The view from the cabana was lovely, though, and I still saw a number of birds.  I also went on a couple nearby hikes (never more than an hour or two from a bathroom) into the foothills around the cabanas and into town.  It was a gorgeous area, with lush hillsides and friendly people.  I fell in love with the town, and despite my illness, really enjoyed my stay there.  I also met Joshua, a San Diegan, who I am now traveling with into Peru.  Now that I am feeling a bit better, we have bussed from Vilcabamba to Loja, then across the border on a long bus ride to the Peruvian city of Piura.  We arrived in Peru already after dark, but the roads along the way were filled with people.  All pilgrims walking the enormous distance to a small border village, some from as far away as Lima!  We passed thousands of people in the night, and spent the night in Piura.  Today I hope to continue to Trujillo, and then the rest of Peru.