Las Aventuras al Aire Libre (I promise I am here to do research too…)

Part 1: La Selva Amazonica

I last signed off before taking a trip to La Selva Amazonica (Amazonian Jungle) with my Child Family Health International (CFHI) friends. One of our two guides is a Spanish teacher for the CFHI program and invited me to join the group on this journey to the Amazonian jungle.

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Monkey Beach with MS2s from UCSD, Northwestern, and University of Colorado

We each paid an initial fee, very inexpensive by American standards, to our guides that included all forms of transportation, food, lodging, and activities. The plethora of food began during our bus ride and we had a filling breakfast about halfway along our journey to the jungle. Once we reached a town called Misahualli (Mee-sa-wa-shee), we had a late almuerzo (sit-down lunch) of “maito”, which is a banana leaf wrapped around a whole tilapia, grilled, served with yucca and salad. It is traditional dish of the “Oriente” region where we traveled, part of the outskirts of “la selva.” I thoroughly enjoyed this whole-fish experience, though a few members of our group were a bit squeamish about eating meat off the head of an entire fish. After our lunch, we explored Monkey Beach, aptly named because there are monkeys throughout the streets and surrounding river beaches of Misahualli.

After our almuerzo stop, we ventured to our jungle accommodations for the first night. We stayed in large huts with bunk beds, covered in mosquito nets. Malaria, Yellow Fever, and Dengue are not as endemic to the region as they are in the Amazonian region in Peru, but mosquito-bite prevention methods are still essential in the jungles of Ecuador.  We were greeted by a tarantula, about the size of my hand, when we went to check our room of 5 ladies for the night. One of the employees of the campsite picked it up with his bare hands and removed it from our door. It was quite impressive! That night we learned to dance salsa and merengue at a local “watering hole” and I can’t wait to bring my new dance skills back to Café Sevilla in downtown San Diego!

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Night #1 Jungle Accommodations (exterior)
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Night #1 Jungle Accommodations (interior)
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Our 6th roommate welcoming us to our humble jungle abode

That evening we ate dinner alongside a different mama tarantula, with her baby not far away, a toucan, and a parrot. Those were just a preview of the incredible creatures we would see in “la selva.” The next day we awoke to what has been my favorite breakfast to date thus far in Ecuador. It is called “tigrillo” and is an Ecuadorian green plantain mash topped with fried eggs. It was the perfect pre-hike meal! We set off in a “canoa” for our guided jungle hike. If you have ever ridden on the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland, you’ve ridden a motorized “canoa.”

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A “canoa”-can you see the resemblance to Disney’s Jungle Cruise?

The journey along part of el Rio Napo took about an hour and once we reached our destination we disembarked for a nature walk through the protected regions of the rainforest in Ecuador. Within the past 20 years, the region has been exploited for its oil reserve, however, measures have been set in place by the Ecuadorian government to protect this incredible forest, which is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. Our guide was a native Quechuan (indigenous people of the Oriente in Ecuador) and guided us through areas of native medicinal plants, walking tree species, and even a Tarzan-like vine on which we all took a swing. We inhaled particles from the plant from which Albuterol/Ventolin inhalers are derived, sampled a taste of the Quina tree (also called red cinchona) from which the anti-malarial drug quinine is derived, and a few brave members of the group sampled a potent nasal-clearing relative of the cayenne pepper that made their eyes water and noses run for the next half-hour! We also saw one of the largest types of “mariposa” (butterfly) in the world (Morpho menelaus). Our jungle journey ended at a private beach along the Rio Napo where we ate an almuerzo of chicken, veggies, and rice and swam with a strong current in the warm waters of this river tributary. It was a glorious day!

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“Walking tree”-these guys can move up to 60 cm per year along the floor of the rainforest
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Pretending to be Tarzan during our nature walk in the Amazonian jungle

That night we stayed at a different jungle lodge, a slight upgrade in room spaciousness and quality from our first night. We ate a delicious dinner, which was quite necessary after a long day of activity in the jungle. We played some card games and retired for the night beneath upgraded mosquito nets and slept so well after a tiring and exciting day of exploration. We departed early the next morning by “canoa” for our first night’s accommodations where we learned a traditional Quechuan dance, made chocolate from scratch, and sampled “chichi de yucca,” a traditional fermented beverage. We also each got to attempt to hit a mango about 50 feet away with a blow dart used by the Quechuan people to anesthetize animals when hunting. I successfully made my first shot!

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A private beach pit stop on el Rio Napo
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Night #2 Jungle Accommodations

We departed by bus to head back to Quito, but along the way stopped by natural hot springs in Papallacta. The springs are naturally heated by nearby volcanoes. It was an incredible final adventure to a wonderful weekend with friends. It turned out to be my last adventure with the CFHI crew as they all headed back to the States the following week.

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Fellow UCSD MS2, Zoey Zobell in “la selva” along el Rio Napo

Part 2: Una visita de mi novio

For the first 3 weeks of my time in Ecuador, my host family heard a lot about my “novio” (boyfriend) back home in San Diego. Brandon (aforementioned novio) and I planned for him to visit me halfway through my stay in Ecuador so we could explore some adventurous places outside the city together and split our time apart in half. Brandon arrived on Friday, July 28, around midday, and we immediately boarded a bus to a town called Baños de Agua Santa. It is known for the many adventurous opportunities that it provides as well as its close proximity to many waterfalls and the Rio Pastaza. Brandon and I decided that it would be a great spot to explore together since we share a love for outdoor adventure and strenuous physical activity. We stayed in a wonderful “casita” that we found through AirBnB owned by an Irish immigrant who has worked as a kayaking guide in Ecuador for the past 23 years. Our private little house in the mountains over looked the river and had many flowers and fruit trees growing on the property. We explored the town our first night after the 3-hour long bus ride from Quito and tried traditional Ecuadorian cuisine at a local restaurant. We explored an artisanal market and tasted “caña” (sugar cane reeds), a local delicacy. We retired pretty early that night to be ready for the exciting day we had ahead of us.

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Rio Pastaza- Baños de Agua Santa featuring mi novio, Brandon

The next morning we went to a local coffee shop to fuel up for the day and rented mountain bikes for only $5 for the entire day. We set off on the famous “Ruta de las Cascadas” (Route of the Waterfalls) between Baños and Puyo, a town on the outskirts of the eastern jungle 61 km (36 miles) away. Along the route, we stopped to sample platanos con queso (boiled green plantains topped with mozzarella-like cheese and aji fresca, my favorite new form of hot sauce), choclo (corn on the cob), and empanadas. We hiked about an hour round-trip to the large waterfall, el Pailon del Diablo. We got a bit drenched and LOVED every minute of it next to this powerful waterfall. We also stopped along the way to zipline across a canyon and the river. We ended up accidentally selecting the best of the canopy (zipline) tour options because we were able to zipline both across the river and back in the opposite direction for the cost of a single trip! After the ziplines, we departed for the rest of the biking journey (approximately 24 more miles) through an incredibly variable climate along the route. By the time we reached Puyo, we had gone from approximately freezing temperatures at the start in Baños to warm, humid jungle weather. The diversity of climates in Ecuador in such short proximities never ceases to amaze me. From Puyo, we took a bus back to our starting point in Baños. We were ravenous and ate with locals in a marketplace that only served traditional food. We both ate “llapingachos” which is a dish that includes eggs, avocado, fried mashed potatoes, salad, and plantain chips, of course all with aji! The entire meal cost only $3! We spent our last night in Baños enjoying a free bottle of Chilean wine that was a gift from the AirBnB host and played cards while deciding which tour guide group to use for our planned Chimborazo summit the next day.

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Biking la “Ruta de las Cascadas”

For anyone who is unfamiliar with the mountain called Chimborazo, not only is it the highest peak in Ecuador, but it happens to be the spot furthest from the Earth’s center in the entire world, due to it’s location on the equatorial bulge. It stands nearly 6,300 m (20,459 ft.) tall and requires crampons, ice picks, and tactical climbing skills to ascend. It also requires ideal weather conditions to make it to the top. It is illegal to climb without a guide for all of these reasons. Brandon and I decided that since he was only going to be in Ecuador for 4 ½ days, we should at least attempt to summit the highest peak in Ecuador, because attempting the near-impossible has never stopped us before. We reached the mountain with a guide associated with the company that also operates the first and second refuge sites on the mountain. We arrived midday on Sunday to the first refuge to allow ourselves a little bit of time to acclimate. The first refuge is still 4,850 m above sea level and many people are unable to ascend higher than this site due to altitude sickness. Brandon and I ate a bit of lunch and practiced a bit of hiking from the first refuge site to the second to see how our bodies felt at altitude. I had the advantage of having lived at altitude in Quito (2, 850 m) for the past 3 weeks; Brandon was still okay, even though he had only just arrived at altitude a few days prior. We both had mild altitude headaches, but otherwise felt okay. We spent the rest of the afternoon at the first refuge site, had coca tea (allegedly helps with the altitude adjustment), and played cards with a guy from the UK who also planned to summit the mountain that night.

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Adjusting to altitude between Refuges 1 and 2 on Chimborazo

To climb Chimborazo, it is required to start in the middle of the night (between 10 and 11 pm) because the complete ascent can take anywhere from 8-12 hours. The ascent itself is only 6 km, but the pitches can be greater than 45 degrees at many points, requiring the use of ice picks and all four limbs to ascend. After our card games, we ate an early chicken and rice dinner and attempted to nap a bit before the evening departure for the climb. Napping was easier said than done and both of our headaches seemed to worsen as the time of departure approached. I think each of us may have been able to sleep 1 hour at most before our guide woke us up to begin our journey. We put on all of our gear after a few hiccups trying to find everything we needed in jam-packed bags, chugged a bit of coffee, ate a protein bar each, and began the ascent with Jose, our guide. Jose led us fairly easily to the second refuge spot, about a mile away from the start. We drank some water and got ready for a tougher ascent.

The next hour or so was fairly challenging with many tricky switch-backs, but no need for crampons or ice picks yet. We reached a large rock where there were other guides with groups as well who had left a bit before us from the first refuge site. At this point, everyone was putting on their crampons over their hiking boots and putting on warmer clothing for the rest of the ascent. Brandon, Jose, and I took out our crampons from our backpacks and it was only at this point that Brandon realized his right crampon was missing an essential screw. We had been given a faulty piece of vital equipment from the guide agency and we did not think we could proceed, as the ascent is impossible without this necessary piece of foot-ware for icy climbs. On the spot, Jose used a rock to cut a cord, which he assembled into a “screw” of sorts to hold the heel of the crampon to the rest of the shoe. At this point, we had been at the stopping point, in well-below freezing temperatures for much longer than any other group and the winds picked up. We continued to ascend but Brandon’s makeshift crampon proceeded to break again upon the ascent. As the winds grew more treacherous and as the steepness of the climb increased, the journey presented many more obstacles than we could’ve bargained for, particularly due to the broken crampon. About halfway up the mountain, Brandon and I collectively decided that it was in our best interest and safety to descend with Jose. Upon descending, the crampon broke one more time, Jose came to the rescue to fix it yet again, but we knew we had made the correct decision.

We arrived back at our base camp at the first refuge around 4 am, after 4 to 5 hours of climbing. We were exhausted, hungry, cold, and relieved to be back safely in our beds at the refuge, where we were both able to sleep on and off for the next 4 hours. We had as much of breakfast as our partially altitude-adjusted stomachs could take and took a taxi back to the guide agency with two other attempted climbers. Only one person out of 12 was able to make the full ascent that night and he was a highly experienced mountain-man from France, who also had the opportunity to be one-on-one with his guide (something that was to expensive for our budget). The rest, like us, had to turn back due to the winds, even without their own technical difficulties. Tired and dirty, Brandon and I were able to speak to the agency who reimbursed more than half of the cost of Brandon’s journey. I do not think we would have ascended all the way due to the winds, even without the technical difficulties, so we were satisfied with the compensation.

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6300 m high-Chimborazo, the furthest point from the center of the Earth in the world

After a 4 hour bus ride back from Riobamba to Quito, during which Brandon and I slept most of the way, we ventured to el Centro Historico in the heart of the city. We explored the old Spanish-colonial architecture, sampled some exquisite Ecuadorian dark chocolate, and checked out the famous Roman Catholic Basilica high on a hill in the district. We had a hearty meal of grilled chicken with traditional Ecuadorian sides and more aji, then taxied to a hotel close to the airport on the Northeastern outskirts of the city. After the longest, hottest showers either of us had taken in Ecuador, we had a relaxing last night together in Quito. Brandon left this morning, Tuesday, August 1, to head back to the States after the best trip we could’ve enjoyed together. Even with the scares on the mountain, for us, the adventures of Ecuador were everything and more than we imagined. I am really sad to see him go, and coming back to work today at the CIMAS foundation has been a quick trip back to reality, but I am happy to be back to my projects with new goals and objectives set for my final three weeks in Quito.

Looking forward to the next adventure,

Caitlin

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