Cuyabeno had whet my appetite; a lodge nestled within Ecuador’s Amazon jungle and barely a stone’s thrown from Quito [the capital of Ecuador], it had offered piranha fishing, cayman spotting, encounters with tarantulas bigger than my hand but, most of all, a sense of serenity within the jungle that I had not expected. By the time the sun had fallen off the landscape and my sweaty body had been replaced by a surprisingly cold one the jungle seemed to come alive, there was a buzz in the air and apart from stinky turkey (a bird with a scream so blood-curdling my nightmares even got scared) it was blissfully peaceful. I don’t mean this in the traditional sense as the rattling, buzzing and foraging of insects, birds and animals was all around, but as a counterpoint to city life it was heaven, nothing but us and the endless jungle (for it certainly feels infinite when you’re within it.)
This 3-day trip had enthused me into looking for further excursions, ones that would be less touristy and longer. After an in-depth internet search I found Wachimak, a Kichwa tribe near Tena, a city in the Amazonas region of Ecuador. I sent an email to a volunteer co-ordinator who simply told me to get to Tena and gave me a couple of phone numbers to call once I arrive. One was for the tribe itself and one for Jacobo, a member of the tribe who has since moved to Tena. What follows is my diary from the days that followed, an illustration of speed when travelling, or rather, a lack of it.
After arriving in Tena I called Jacobo who tells me I need to catch the 5:30am bus to Puerto Rico, where I will then take a canoe and then go for a walk, or at least that’s what I think he said as I have only been learning Spanish for the past month and I still have a long way to go to be conversational!
Who knew an on-time bus could be so upsetting? I’m stranded in Tena for another day as I wake up late to find that the owner of the guesthouse was fast asleep. He had promised to be awake to let me out of the gates in the morning. By the time he had resurrected himself and I had run down to the bus station the 5:30 was leaving and I couldn’t catch it. The only thing to do is go back to the guesthouse and back to sleep.
Strangely the delay has helped me. I give Jacobo a call and we arrange to meet. Then I find out actually how I am supposed to arrive at the tribe. I have to get the 5:30am to Agua Santa (not Puerto Rico as I first thought), take the bus all the way to its destination and then start coming back as on its return leg it goes past Puerto Rico. There I need to find the medical clinic where there will be a radio to call both the tribe and Sergio, a man who owns the canoe that will take me up the river to Puerto Wachimak where two tribesmen will be there to meet me. He even drew a map:
God knows how I would have made it without this!
5:40am – I am now on the bus to Wachimak! There was no way I was going to make the same mistake twice!
8:30am – We’ve hit a snag. A bridge on the way to Puerto Rico has begun to fall apart. The bridge is constructed of a number of metal plates, three wide, but one of these has fallen into the river below. I wait with the other passengers by the side of the road as the driver of the bus and a gradually growing flock of people decide what to do.
9:15am – Progress has been made. It was decided to pull up a metal sheet that wasn’t quite as necessary as some of the other metal sheets and fill it in the gap where the bus needs to drive over. I’m loving the improvisatory nature of these Ecuadoreans!
9:22am – The metal sheet is in place but my bus driver refuses to go over it. I have to grab my bags and get onto another bus.
9:25am – I realise I have made a huge mistake. I took my bags onto the new bus, took a seat and waited. Everyone else got off. It’s now just me and the driver as he attempts to cross the bridge. There are men either side of the rusty metal sheet replacement holding huge branches which they are using to make sure the sheet does not fall out of place. Miraculously it doesn’t and we make it to the other side.
11am – We reach a crossroads. My new bus was not going to Puerto Rico so I get off at a junction and wait for another bus.
2pm – It’s now two ‘o’ clock. A bus has just passed but was full to the brim and unwilling to take on any extra people. I can’t believe it! The next one is not til 4pm. I have now been travelling for almost 11 hours simply trying to get to my destination. It is getting a little ridiculous, I was supposed to be at Puerto Rico by 11am, now it seems it will be 5pm.
8pm (maybe) – I’m not really sure what time it is but I’ve arrived. 14 hours and 30 minutes – not bad! Three hours on the first bus then roughly one hour watching crazy Ecuadoreans try and mend a broken bridge. Another two hours on a bus. Five hours waiting by the side of the road. Another hour on a bus. When I finally arrived in Puerto Rico it was clear that everything was closed up. It wasn’t hard to find the medical clinic as there was only three houses but nobody was there. I knocked on the other houses and eventually found someone but they couldn’t seem to get the radio working. I asked them where Sergio’s house and they pointed down the path. This walk was not ideal as I was carrying my usual luggage of backpack and guitar as well as a huge sack full of rice, corn, onions and candles for the tribe (as per their wishes) which was starting to break my back!
Once I arrived at his house (which was the only one by the river) he seemed to know what to do and packed me onto a canoe, where his two lads took me down to Puerto Wachimak. I jumped off, dragged my bag, sack and guitar and plonked them on the side of the bank. They asked me for twice the money Jacobo said it should cost and, devoid of energy, I gave it to them. With a final question of “Esta bien?” they drove off down the river. No-one from the tribe had arrived to meet me yet so I sat by the river, surrounded by dense jungle. Within five minutes the sun had almost set and suddenly I was thrown back into this world of buzzing activity and rustling trees. Now I also had the strange noises of things coming in and out of the river, of water gushing up to the shore and sounded like encroaching menace. This wasn’t the serene wilderness I had before touted, this was something altogether more chilling.
It was around an hour before someone had arrived. I had spent most of the time looking through my bag for a torch that I had packed incredibly badly, and the rest terrified. This feeling wouldn’t last long as I was greeted by two tiny Ecuadoreans, one of which took the massive sack of food and placed it on his shoulder, and the other who greeted me. At a ridiculous pace we then careered through the jungle, next to what seemed like huge drops to rivers below, and across log bridges in the dark, quite often being told not to touch the makeshift handrails that seemed like my only hope of not falling into the abyss.
Finally when I arrived something happened quickly. The plate of food placed in front of me was devoured before I even breathed. Later I fell asleep just as quickly after having a couple of victorious glasses of aguardiente with the men of the village. Without the journey before I am sure that all of these things would not have tasted quite so sweet! Speed has never tasted this triumphant!