Like I said previously, when G Adventures announced their agent FAM trips for this year, I jumped at the chance to join one. In case you weren't aware, a fam trip is basically a trip for agents to familiarize or educate themselves on a destination or service. G Adventures took a selection of their trips and offered select dates to agents for a discounted price so that we could see what it was like to take a trip with G. I was selected for the Ecuador Multi-sport trip in September (click here for full details: http://bit.ly/1DCNirU), and boy am I glad I went!
As soon as I arrived back in Quito from my trip to the Galapagos (see previous post for details), I said some quick goodbyes and headed to our pre-trip meeting to meet some new friends, along with my new guide. Maria Sol, aka Sol, is a native of Quito and she was an AWESOME guide. I could tell she was going to be fun from even that first meeting, where we just went through an overview of what we could expect from day to day for the next week or so. She then led us down to Plaza Foch for a tasty Ecuadorian meal where we started to get to know each other. Interestingly, there were only 7 other agents, and we were also joined by a sales rep from G, who was really awesome, and a great ambassador for his company. He started out as a guide for them and has slowly worked his way up the ranks, all over the world, and you could really tell how passionate he is, and all of the G employees are, about their company and its mission. Plus he could give us a lot of "behind-the-scenes" information on how our trip, an "active" trip, was different from other trips, for example. Let's just say that after spending just a bit of time chatting with him, I have full confidence in the operations of G Adventures, no matter where you are in the world. They really know their stuff, and the way they operate is responsible, efficient, and effective - in other words, their travelers have a really great time!
SO- day one we hopped in a mini-van and headed to Quito's bus station. We arrived in plenty of time to grab some snacks before Sol directed us to the right bus. Before arriving in Ecuador, I'll admit that I was pretty ignorant, and when I read "public bus" on the itinerary, I was more than a bit nervous. I mean - I was picturing a school-bus crowded with people & livestock & that sort of thing. Well- at least from Quito to Tena (a 6-ish hour drive) - that couldn't have been further from the truth. This was a really nice coach, with assigned seats (which were super comfy & reclining), air conditioning, and even a big TV monitor at the front of the bus. Now- it was broken apparently, but I was too busy looking out the window at the GORGEOUS scenery & getting to know my fellow travelers to worry about watching some Spanish-language movie. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised, and we were lucky in that there weren't any delays during the trip. We arrived into Tena, in the Amazon basin, in plenty of time for an optional activity that afternoon. Sol described one that would get us deep into the jungle, and sounded like a good chance to get our feet wet (metaphorically, and unfortunately for me, literally) with our active trip. Everyone but one of us jumped at the chance, and so after checking in to our adorable little hostal, we changed into "dirty" clothes and headed out. We headed to a farm where we changed into knee-high rubber boots. Apparently we were going to be hiking through a creek at one point, so these were to keep us dry. Then we went back out to the main road and eventually just pulled over. We then started following this teeny little old man through a hacked out path that led into the jungle. He'd stop occasionally to explain something about the crazy giant trees & plants we were seeing, but mostly it was happy tromping down into the forest. Then we got to the creek bed & things started to get interesting. The walls alongside the creek kept getting higher, and more and more narrow until we got to a point where we had a cave or a crevice to go through. We peeked into the cave to see bats (creepy!), including a cute & apparently very special white bat (not an albino, a little white one that looked like a mouse). But then it was time to inch our way up & through the crevice. This led to other semi-precarious scrambles & climbs through other crevices - all while being led by this little old man. He kept calling me champion when I'd make it through one of the obstacles, which were really a bit scary at times, so I finally asked how old he was. 65. !!! This little 65-year-old man had found this area in the jungle & started leading people through it. There were some foot-holds scraped out from time to time, and maybe a log or two strategically placed for better foot-holds, but really - were were just in the natural jungle setting. This is the kind of experience you get with G Adventures - totally unique and out of the way, and completely awesome. Even if I did sink down into the muck so far at one point that water rushed right over the top of my boots. It was incredibly satisfying to get all sweaty & dirty and really see what it's like in the Amazonian jungle. Sadly- not many pics (too busy scrambling), but here are a few (starting with one shot from the bus ride over):
Once we got home & showered (and rinsed out bat-guano-covered clothes!), Sol took us out to a little restaurant tucked away in a market in Tena. NO chance we'd have found this place without her. Again- completely traditional food, including a CRAZY insect appetizer that I didn't eat, and more of the amazing tree tomato juice I'd tried in the Galapagos. Tree tomatoes are awesome, and not tomato-like at all - but if you ever see it, drink it - yumm! The next morning we woke up to an actually fairly chilly day (day one there was HOT), and jumped in some trucks to head out to our rafting put-in spot. Again- it is just GORGEOUS - even in the relative "flat" area of Tena. We were split into two teams for our rafting, and even though it was "just" class 3+ rapids, thirty seconds in we hit a major wave that tossed me and a buddy in the front right off into rushing water. We nearly flipped our boat another time, keeping ONLY Sol and our river guide in the boat. That was was really fairly scary - this river was MOVING. The other boat actually flipped twice - their guide was a bit more of a dare devil than ours, thankfully! Luckily, we got the hang of it and had enough calm spots to take in how lovely the scenery was - teeny orchids clinging to moss-covered cliffs, lush green everywhere - just amazing. We stopped for lunch along the river where our guides made us surprisingly good burritos, and generally had a really wonderful time. Once we made it to the point where our river merged with another and became the biggest tributary to the Amazon, it was just about time to hop out for a swim (bad idea- CHILLY water!), and then just enough time to dry off before we got to a village where we'd meet the jeeps back into town. I only had my crappy underwater camera here, so the pics are really not good (especially the group shot where fingers were in the lens - must purchase waterproof-digital!), but it was awesome - to me a completely cannot-miss experience while in the Amazon basin!
After another tasty and HUGE dinner at yet another spot Sol found for us (we were the only tourists there, just like the night before), it was time for another travel day. We were supposed to take another long public bus ride back up into the mountains to Banos, the backpacker HQ in Ecuador. Apparently, the guide can propose an option of a private van to the group if everyone wants to pay a supplement, but because we were lucky agents and the sales guy wanted to make sure we were happy, we got the trip in a private van for free! WHEE! At the end of the day we ALL advised them to make this part of the trip because our two stops along the way were just great. First Sol took us to a little wildlife rescue center, where they had all sorts of native animals that were originally pets (or arrived hurt, or similar) - so we got to see monkeys, birds, big cats, strange animals like giant rodents and tapirs (long nosed hog-like things), and lots of boars. It was even feeding time for the cats, so we got to see the cow heads being delivered to the jaguars - too cool!
Once we got close to Banos though, it was time for one of the few things I knew about before the trip - a waterfall called El Paillon del Diablo, or Devil's Cauldron. Now, I haven't been to any of the truly HUGE waterfalls in the world (Niagara, Victoria, Iguazu, etc), but this one was easily one of the most impressive waterfalls I've ever seen. Super powerful, and high as well. Plus it was just in a gorgeous setting (but Ecuador seems to be universally gorgeous). Most of my pics of it are vertical which don't show up here- but hopefully you'll get the idea.
Before this review gets too long for anyone to read through it - I'll pause here before continuing on to our time in Banos and Cotopaxi, and then finally my exploration of Quito. Hopefully you've gotten a taste for some of the delights of Ecuador, but just wait- the best is yet to come!