Simon and I took a bus north from Cuenca to Baños. It was a long journey and rather disappointing because we were in thick cloud all the way through Chimborazo province and couldn’t enjoy any of the scenery.
By the time we reached Ambato it was dark and the bus was almost empty. We took advantage of the 10 minute wait in the bus station to buy some rum and cola and by the time we arrived in Baños we were feeling better, although I was desperate for the toilet.
The bus dropped us on the main square. I’d been enjoying the rum so much that I hadn’t bothered to check the guide book for hotels. I was just leafing through it on the pavement when a woman called to us from a car parked on the opposite side of the street.
It turned out that she and her husband owned a little holiday house and they offered to rent it to us for a few days. It was cheap and much more comfortable than the usual cramped hostel we were used to. Deal done.
We spent the next few days walking, horse riding and chilling in and around Baños. We decided to organise a trip to the jungle and visited a few agencies to negotiate the best price. We found a few good options for the Puyo-Pungo area but there was no-one else signed up. If we wanted to go we’d have to recruit the group.
So we spent the afternoon standing on the main street, stopping passers-by and trying to get them interested. To clinch the deal we’d invite them out to the “Hard Rock Café” (unauthorised) and back to our pad for cocktails in the evening. In a couple of days we had a group of Norwegians, a Swede, a Swiss girl and two Belgian guys plus some new friends from Quito.
It was a shame to end the partying but everyone was excited to get down to the jungle, so we sorted things out with the agency and early one morning we piled into their mini-bus for the journey down the Pastaza valley to Puyo.
In Puyo we visited an animal sanctuary (basically you get to see all the life you won’t see in the wild in this part of the Amazon). Over lunch we met two more group members, who’d paid more than us in Quito and flown down. It was probably difficult to integrate with us but they never seemed to be able to adjust to being out of England and eventually left the tour early.
In the afternoon the bus took us out of Puyo and along a rough track to our cabins, which were basic but comfortable. We spent the rest of the time lying in hammocks, taking canoe rides down the river, walking and learning how to leave a trail in the forest and about how the locals used different plants, listening to birds, trying to spot birds, feeding monkeys and having a great time.
On the last night we went to a nearby lake where all we could see was the red eyes of the caiman lying in wait around the edge. We floated across quietly on a canoe. Our guide was determined to catch a baby caiman for our benefit and succeeded after several ever more desperate lunges towards the land. I’m not sure the caiman was too impressed but he was soon safely back in the water.
Walking back to camp, I looked up at the stars shining through the trees. The air was warm and we could hear animals but I felt totally at ease, so far from mass development. Sometimes on these tours I think you need a couple of days to really appreciate where you are.
The next morning there was a special treat; a bowl of fried ants, which tasted a bit like popcorn. The family elder had also arrived. He was a shaman and had a huge smile. He really did exude an air of power and complete self-assurance, in his presence I felt like any problems or worries were being lifted out of me (not that I had many anyway in that moment).
Simon was really interested in drinking ayahuascara, the drug which gives you powerful hallucinations. So far the guides had just said not to think about it. The shaman took a different perspective. He said that Simon could take it, but he’d have to live with the family for at least a month to prepare himself.
Coincidentally, Simon had fallen in love with the shaman’s daughter, who had been cooking for us since the previous evening, and so he started to think how he could organise to bring more tour groups out from the UK. I lost touch with him some time after so I don’t know what happened with the shaman’s daughter or the ayahuascara.
It was the end of our trip and time to drive back to Puyo. First we knocked back some potent firewater provided (worringly) by our driver who’d brought the mini-bus to collect us. We gave the shaman a lift back to town. It was quite funny to see he lived on a very normal residential street, although the house looked a bit more exotic inside, with rugs, tapestries and artefacts decorating the rooms. We said goodbye and thanks to this gentle, peaceful man and it really felt like we were leaving something special behind as we headed back to Baños.