Tena, Ecuador... the gateway to the Amazon.
We began our adventure right away with the bus trip from Cotacachi to Tena...two bus trips actually. We were advised to avoid Quito (traffic) and take a bus from Ibarra (north of Cotacachi) to Pifo, a city on the eastern outskirts of Quito. The advice continued - "on the 2nd roundabout, get off on the highway, and wait for the Tena bus leaving Quito to pick you up". A little vague but we are always up for some excitement. So after 3 1/2 hours and a $7 bus ride from Cotacachi to Pifo, we found ourselves waiting at a chilly gas station for a mystery bus that we were assured would be there within "a few" hours.
The boys played happily on the side of the highway, next to the traffic of course, and Gabe slept on Katie's chest. Lo and behold, less than 1/2 hour later, we saw a bus that read Tena and after the assistant driver loaded our bags in the under carriage storage, we boarded a very nice, ejecutivo bus (Los Banos), complete with Spanish movies and reclining seats. The next five hours were spent in comfort and relaxation before arriving safely and happily in Tena. Our advice? If you're up for some adventure and are aware of your surroundings, you can easily save a hundred bucks or more by taking the bus as opposed to a private taxi.
We taxied from the bus terminal to our hostel, La CasaBlanca. There aren't many in-between accommodation options in Tena - it's either hostels or luxury Amazonian lodges. Since we are on a tight budget, we chose a private room in a peaceful, little hostel. La CasaBlanca is a short 20 minute walk from the town center, making it a little safer and quieter than a hostel in the middle of Tena. It's a lovely structure, with high ceilings and fans in every room. It's managed by even lovelier hosts, Gary and Michelle. They're a married couple with 3 girls, one aged 7 and the twins are 4 years old...perfect playmates for our boys! Gary is a native Ecuadorian from Tena and Michelle moved from Ohio a few years ago. Gary leads all sorts of tours and since he was raised here, he is extremely knowledgeable about the area. And he speaks perfect English!
After a wonderful breakfast prepared by our hosts, Gary took us out on our first full day to tour the town and surrounding area in search of real estate opportunities. For a small fee ($12/hour), we spent the day in his air-conditioned car (a rarity here) and he showed us the countryside. He stopped and called all the "se vende" (for sale) signs we saw and was a huge asset in our hunt for investments. Plus, it was a bonus that we got a private, guided tour of the region!
The next day, we took one of Gary's tours and it was, by far, the best experience we've had to date! The tour was a trip up the Napo River into the Amazon to watch and partake in a traditional chocolate and chicha making demonstration. The trip started with a short 30 minute drive from Tena, Ecuador to the shores of the Napo River, a tributary to the Amazon River that flows on the flanks of several east Andean volcanoes. All five of us piled into a long, narrow, and low-in-the-water motor canoe and sped up river. The low profile of the boat offered a unique perspective like that of gliding on top of the water and was perfect for spotting several different types of Amazonian birds along the way.
After driving the canoe right onto the bank, we hopped out and Gary led us on a short walk through the jungle to meet a local woman, Martha, who provided us a demonstration on harvesting and cooking yuca as well as making some of the world's finest chocolate. Gary was very knowledgeable on everything, from how the local homes were constructed from palm branches to harvesting and replanting the yuca plant, and it made for a very informative and exciting beginning. The boys had a blast watching me harvest a yuca plant as well as rubbing the sap from a "dragon's blood" tree on their skin and watching it change colors. After watching Martha prepare freshly harvested yuca, we all got to taste the local delicacy, which the boys promptly consumed with their fingers.
Next came our favorite part of the tour, the making of fresh chocolate from scratch. Gary cut a cacao pod right off the tree, and while he explained the history of the plant and the origins of its famous delicacy, we all chewed and sucked on the seeds, which tasted just like cotton candy. We then had the privilege of helping toast and peel the beans and the boys even got to drop the still warm beans into the grinder. The product was fresh, 100% unsweetened chocolate! The look of joy and anticipation on the boy's faces as they watched the paste slowly squeeze from the grinder was one we'll always remember. Martha then added a little fresh cane sugar and water and the most gorgeous smell rose from the pan as we watched our favorite familiar treat boil together before our eyes. Fresh bananas and strawberries accompanied our chocolate and we all spent the next 30 minutes dipping, spreading, and smearing chocolate everywhere. A huge mess and a fantastic time was had by all. We highly recommend taking this trip with Michelle and Gary at La CasaBlanca if you're ever in Tena.
Gabe was feeling poorly the next day (up all night with a fever) so I took the boys with Michelle and the girls to the Zoo de Arca! It's a quaint little zoo for endangered species and it was filled with all kinds of exotic birds and animals. They had a blast walking around and playing with the girls.
On Palm Sunday, Gabe and Katie stayed home again and Michelle took Mike and the boys took a local Baptist church. The boys and Gary and Michelle's girls went to Spanish Sunday school and had a great time. I got some much needed quiet time and prayer and enjoyed the Spanish praise and worship music, set to guitars. When they got home, we picked some palms (real ones from the actual jungle!) and had a tiny service of our own, out in the courtyard of the hostel.
After a late evening trip to the local, recommended doctor (only $10 for a visit but he was only there from 7 - 9 pm), we picked up some antibiotics from the pharmacy (only $6) and baby Gabe was on the mend by the next day! So, we took a 45 minute bus ride to the small town of Misahualli and got to swim on the beaches of the Napo River in the Amazon! The current was very strong so the boys stayed near the banks but I swam out to a big rock in the center of the river...very cool. The water was freezing so Katie and Gabe just dipped their toes in. Afterwards, we walked up the bank and saw the wild monkeys!! We were warned to keep away from the older monkeys because they can be very territorial and we saw that in action when a local dog got a bit too close! But the younger monkeys were very playful and we even got to feed them a couple peanuts. It's very warm and muggy here and in Tena and there were lots of small bugs, so we recommend bringing long sleeve, loose fitting clothing and bugspray.
We all had a great day that ended with $3 haircuts for Michael and I, a $3 straight razor shave for me, and dinner out to the local Guayusa Lounge, where we enjoyed tilapia tacos and two-for-one, specialty cocktails.
The next day, I headed out to go white water rafting on the Jatunyancu River with a local adventure company in search of experience leading adventure tourism activities. The safety kayaker offered to take my waterproof camera and snap a few pictures...he ended up taking over 100! And they were all excellent! I had a great day rafting, swimming in the river, and jumping off of huge boulders.
Our last day in Tena was spent relaxing, packing up, eating local ice cream, and having delicious crepes at the local La Tortuga restaurant. Katie had chicken curry with pineapple and the famous, native iced guayusa tea, which was fantastic. My chili con carne left a little to be desired from a flavor aspect, but was still fairly decent. Afterwards, we walked home across the river and up to the observatory, which offered amazing views of the two rivers and the entire city of Tena.
We had a really exciting time in Tena and enjoyed ourselves and our adventures. Stay tuned for our brief but exciting tales from Banos!
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