“My pulse is racing, my mouth is dry, I want to escape – and fast. Hardly a promising encounter, you might think – but then I am 35 metres up on a vertiginous canopy walkway in the Ecuadorian Amazon.”
“In truth I‘ve lost my heart to this vast expanse of extraordinary primary rainforest where gargantuan kapoks tower like mighty lords of the forest over gracious palms and dripping vines. Tall, exotic species such as mahoganies, bamboo and strangler figs thrust into and crowd this magical place – the most biodiverse on earth. The cacophony of sounds that herald the closing of the day is something never to be forgotten; deep throated bulbous toads, delicate tree frogs and the insistent chirrups of the cicadas usher in nights of such darkness that only the glow-worm and native Kichwa peoples can find their way about.
In early dawns, we went out by canoe in search of adventure; mist rising in the treetops, the gentle plop of the paddle, the screeching of squabbling hoatzins (also known as the stinkbird) in the trees and the primeval rushing roar of a distant troupe of howler monkeys moving through the canopy.
Afternoons brought time to rest amid the squawking and warbling of the shockingly yellow and black oropendolas darting around their pendulous nests. In the damp heat of one such afternoon I followed a troupe of tiny squirrel monkeys for half an hour as they flung themselves from palm to vine, not one minute’s walk from my sleeping quarters – a charming wooden hut on stilts with an open-sided shower and a hammock on the verandah overlooking the seething forest.
My most memorable encounters included being pelted by twigs and leaves by the alpha male of a group of capuchin monkeys hanging from branches over our heads as we returned from an evening canoe ride, and watching transfixed as a caiman stalked a purple heron not three metres from our boat. Snakes, tarantulas, giant snails the size of your fist, lazy sloths, rodent-like agoutis and silent sliding caimans all showed their faces in the space of a few short hours. Only the elusive and rarely seen jaguar stayed in the shadows.
All too soon it was time to leave.
By complete contrast I next found myself in the gracious majesty of the Andes Mountains. Mile upon mile of rolling green hillocks, a land of lakes and surprisingly neat patchwork cultivated fields, all dominated by the snow-clad cloudy-topped slopes of volcanoes – including Cotopaxi whose eruptions have been so much in the news lately.
It’s a glorious place to walk – with one eye on the altitude as we are at 3,900 metres. For those with time, instead of heading back to Quito, I implore you to stay up here for a few days in one of the area’s many gorgeous haciendas. These farmsteads and centuries-old family homes have withstood the test of time, evading destruction by the earthquakes and volcanic explosions that were features of 18th and 19th century Ecuadorian life. Roaring log fires, sepia family photographs, glorious bowls of roses, leather and sheepskin abound and family heirlooms, gilded mirrors, antiques and chandeliers complete the historic house feel. In many cases you’ll share a meal or evening drink with a member of the family and, when not resting under shady vines in picturesque corners or in booked-lined libraries, you may ride out in the surrounding hills to look for condors, tour the vegetable and herb gardens or visit nearby waterfalls. Any visit to Ecuador can be hectic so this chance to unwind will be very welcome.
Otavalo’s colourful market was my last stop on the mainland. Its streets are lined with numerous stalls offering bags, belts and bracelets, hats, blankets, rugs and hammocks – all there for the bargaining – and on Saturdays the livestock market adds a new dimension. Soon it was time to bid farewell to the elegant squares and towering cathedrals of Quito and head offshore to the most extraordinary gathering of wildlife imaginable – the Galapagos Islands.
My base was an extremely comfortable 20 passenger motor yacht with wood-stripped floors, a cosy bar and dining room and a comfy sitting area for evening chats and our nightly briefing by resident naturalists. We hiked up small hills to search for blue and red footed boobies and swam among sea turtles, wafting surgeon fish and lazily snouting reef sharks. Red, yellow and blue starfish clung to the seabed like iridescent pincushions and shoals of tiny darting reef fish passed close to my mask.
Shore trips brought us up close to lazy sea lions basking in the sand and, my personal favourite, the prehistoric looking marine iguanas lying immobile on jagged rocks – their green and red pigmentation glowing against the dark of the lava.
Evenings were social time to discuss the sightings of flapping stingrays or the plunging dives of the mighty pelicans – and to forge new friendships.
I’ve left the Avenue of Volcanoes and the memorable Devil’s Nose train for next time, but I did manage to squeeze in a short visit to the UNESCO city of Cuenca, some three hours’ drive south of Guayaquil. It was a drive of such beauty I will always remember it. Verdant rice paddies, banana plantations and fields of mangoes give way to a steep ridge of mountains which ascend through cloud forest to over 4,000m and on through a landscape reminiscent of Scotland. Cuenca awaits on the other side, all cobbled streets, glorious botanical parks, churches and a host of superb 19th century former mansions now operating as gorgeous boutique hotels. Here you can trek some of the many picturesque trails in Cajas National Park, visit the home of Panama hat production or simply unwind in this laid back city before you head home to the UK.
All in all it was an experience richer than I could have possibly imagined. Let’s plan one for you!