From Andes to Amazon: a self-drive adventure in Ecuador
Felipe Robinson is explaining the difference between an eddy, a hole and a wave as we paddle down the Jatunyacu, a headwater of the Amazon. I sort of know, but there’s nothing like staring from the front of an inflatable kayak, a “duckie”, as we crest a boulder and plunge into a churning abyss — “this is a hole” — and then face a wall of water — “this is a wave” — to give the words fresh meaning.
We flip and I am caught in an eddy before being whipped away into the rapids. I look over to where my girlfirend is in another duckie. She’ll later say I looked terrified but I like to think that’s because, being a Spanish speaker, she hasn’t yet learned the word insouciant. It’s rare that I long for a child — I prefer to indulge the one within — but this is one of those moments. A 10-year-old would love this. Felipe rights the duckie, drags me onboard and we continue our journey through the rainforest.
We are in Ecuador — think Galápagos, Cotopaxi, Julian Assange. The country is going through a political upheaval. Rafael Correa, for 10 years a leader in the mould of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Brazil’s Lula, has decamped to Belgium, now pursued by his former deputy Lenín Moreno waving kidnapping charges. (We meet a Stalin on this trip too: parents don’t mess around with Christian names in Quito).
Correa was a popular leader who ushered in a new constitution as forward- thinking — environmentally and socially — as any in the world. He made oil companies cough up for health and education, and then began changing the law to keep himself in power. He also, in that classic way of strongman leaders, built superb new highways. He spent $11bn, rocketing Ecuador 57 places to 25th in the World Economic Forum’s global rankings of road quality.
Which is how my girlfriend and I find ourselves in the maelstrom. The paving of new sections of the E45 or La Troncal Amazónica, a road that weaves 701km from Puerto El Carmen on the Colombian border to Zamora in Ecuador’s far south, last year prompted tour operator Journey Latin America to launch a new self-drive holiday.
We would join the road for only a tenth of its journey, but its unwrinkled tarmac — inaugurated in 2016 — would allow us to drive a formerly terrifying loop that would drop down through cloud forest into the heat of Amazonia, before climbing again beside waterfalls to the high sierra and the Andean nation’s celebrated “Avenue of the Volcanoes”.
A couple of nights acclimatising in the sleepy capital Quito (altitude: 2,850 metres), snacking on catzo, the fried beetle that is Ecuador’s answer to Haribo, and looking at gold-slathered monasteries, and we are on our way. In a rented SUV with a local mobile, onboard internet and GPS, we head east on the smoothest of roads, gulping for air as we rise quickly to a 4,000-metre pass.
Given the variety of landscapes we will see, the distances are a breeze. Before we’ve finished gaping at the peaks and chasms, we are pulling into Papallacta, a geothermal spring, passing various siren entrepreneurs who try to trick us into lesser resorts, one even waving a red flag of the type demolition crews use to warn of an explosion ahead.
After a soak as good as any in Reykjavik, all the while scanning the mountainsides for rare bears, we lunch on locro, a potato and cheese soup, and then head down into the cloud forest. Soon we’re pulling up to Cabañas San Isidro. Manager Alejandro Valenzuela greets us, motioning for quiet, before pointing into the canopy. “A woodcreeper,” he says. Then he leads us along a path lined by orphaned orchids that have fallen from the trees.
Our room is simple, but homely, with a view through the forest to mountains caught in the swirling clouds. It is the first of two, perhaps three, places we go that are the creation of extraordinary women, in this case Carmen Bustamante, whose art is in every room. Set in 2,000 hectares of forest, and caught between two nature reserves, Cabañas San Isidro is a birdwatcher’s paradise.
We eat locally sourced chard, pork, potatoes and beans, offset by Chilean wine, in a lodge where 11 species of hummingbird buzz the feeders and trogons pluck moths from the walls at breakfast. We walk along trails where butterflies flutter between large palms, and layer upon layer of green creates a sylvan wonderland still dripping with the night’s rain.
We make a dawn trip to see the (flightless and secretive) white-bellied antpitta. It doesn’t turn up, perhaps because a fellow guest — the US ambassador — joins us with eight armed guards. We do see the antpitta the following morning, His Excellency having slept in; it pitta-patters about, looking worried.
From San Isidro, the road winds down through blue-hued mountains into Amazonia. Within an hour, we are at Santa Rita, a 780-strong Kichwa community that makes chocolate and many other things. We take a tour of the farm, and petroglyphs are pointed out. We look out over the valley from a spot where sentinels watched the ancient roads. “The first two Spaniards came this way, carried because they didn’t like walking,” says the farmer. “Their descendants probably own a tourist lodge and have a nice car.”
We put up at Hamadryade Lodge, five cabins set above the Rio Napo. At just 500 metres above sea-level, it’s a different world. In the dawn we hear the birds first. Their calls are myriad and strange — from water being sucked down a drain to a baby’s snore; a laser fired by Barbarella to a stone being dropped into a pool of jelly. Then we begin to make out the shapes of the tree ferns, and finally the elegant design of the cabin itself, beautiful stencils on the wooden walls and ceiling.
The French manager, Maeva Ullmann, tells us they have plans to offer treatments here, both shamanistic — temazcal and the ludicrously fashionable ayahuasca — but also meditation and shiatsu. She explains this over a very Gallic potatoes dauphinoise, before excusing herself because, she says, “I had a baby three days ago”.
Late in the afternoon, flushed with adrenalin from white-water rafting with Felipe, my girlfriend and I drive down to the local village of Misahualli. We eat barbecued corn on the banks of the Napo as monkeys look covetously at our belongings. Here I suffer a sensation I get time and again on this trip, that of an alternate future. We are watching motorised canoes slice downstream on a river that will lead to the Amazon itself and, 2,500 miles on and only 400 metres down, the Atlantic. I yearn to take a boat, but instead the personalised guidebook JLA has given us instructs us to turn, to head back up into the Andes.
The following day we find ourselves on the Highway of the Waterfalls, climbing 850 metres alongside the cascading Rio Pastaza. Dusk is falling and the road becomes a little Mad Max, lorries and buses rushing past with neon flashing, and overtaking more suited to Silverstone than a cliff-edge highway. From the outset, I decided to enjoy the driving in the knowledge that I am fully insured. But I need all my nerve as darkness falls and we follow a pick-up filled with locals, one using the breeze to dry hair so long it falls close to the road surface.
We arrive at the Samari Spa hotel in Baños, a doomed relic of a place. The decor is all dark wood, with old carbines resting behind reception with bayonets fixed. The staff are sweet, but it’s the first depressing note of the trip, as forlorn as the five peacocks that roam the grounds in a search of non-existent peahens. If you go, ask instead to be put up at Luna Volcán, a newish place on the edge of the Tungurahua volcano, which, while a little over-romantic (“proposal dinner menu”, anyone?), has rooms looking on to the town from 400 metres above.
The next day is magnificent though. We head back down the highway to Pailón del Diablo, an enormous waterfall. The family that owns the place has stuck up signs quoting the scriptures, then forged the sort of trails up cliffs and through caves that only a faith in an afterlife would allow. Soon we are behind and under the torrent, a whole river falling 80 metres. It’s enchanting, wet and terrifying, but also strangely hypnotic, like being caught in an endless explosion. Afterwards, we drive up and up and up until we are under Tungurahua, whose name in Kichwa means “Throat of Fire”. At the edge of a hillside is a giant swing, its long wires and high crossbar a much-loved local thrill, and we take turns to be pushed out into the void.
It’s almost the end of the journey. The road back to Quito joins the high altitude Avenue of the Volcanoes, the people on the verges now in ponchos and fedoras. The car groans as it climbs through the desolation of Cotopaxi national park, right up into the eaves of Ecuador’s most famous volcano. After a breathless walk from the car park just beneath the mountain refuge, the clouds clear and the glacier on the 5,897-metre summit glimmers like the cloisters of a cathedral, an ice cone that has retreated by 40 per cent since the 1970s.
Looking up, I think again about how children would love this trip. From eating bugs in Quito to the flocking hummingbirds in the cloud forest; from Kichwa blowpipes to the white-water rafting, this is an adventure — one that offers huge opportunities for family vacation absurdity, and the endlessly repeated dinner table stories that come with it.
As we come off the mountain, a storm hits so violently that we’re worried we’ll be struck by lightning. The electricity at Chilcabamba Lodge is out when we arrive, but Tania Changoluisa isn’t fazed. She lights the stove in our room and gives us hot canelazo with raw alcohol on the side. We cosy in, watching the fire in the darkening night, lit occasionally by bolts from beyond the windows. Then we eat an exquisite if very simple meal. It is the most rustic of the places we stay, but our favourite.
The road the next day takes us along miles of dirt tracks still scarred by the storm, and I find myself thinking of those alternative turnings we could have taken, say hopping on a boat down the Amazon, or driving on through the volcanoes to the Pacific coast. But no, our time is up. As the car bumps up on to the tarmac that’ll lead us to Quito’s new airport, another major investment, a masticating alpaca watches us go.
Ruaridh Nicoll was a guest of Journey Latin America. Its 10-day Self-Drive Ecuador: Back Road of the Andes trip costs from £2,492 per person, including accommodation, car hire, excursions and most meals (white-water rafting is extra). Flights from London to Quito would add around £650
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