This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Jungle Boogie in Tena

A view of the park
From Baños we take a several hour bus ride to Tena which takes down and out of the Sierra (mountain) region and into the Amazonia (jungle) region. Tena sits on the edge of the jungle and is a very easy place to make trips into the semi-wild Amazonia jungle. Tena city itself is really quite uninteresting. It is fairly small but growing rapidly. A major international airport is almost completed. Which will could be a boon to tourism, but the city is only about five hours from Quito. The airport is probably more for the oil business (Ecuador's largest export) which has been sucking crude and doing reprehensible damage to the Amazonia for decades. Follow this link to read current news about an ongoing case against Chevron in Ecuador.

There is one main road in Tena with some mediocre restaurants and stores, one large supermarket and a bus terminal. The main urban attraction is a park on a peninsula that is nestled between two rivers with some native plants and animals. I want to go because there are three tapirs there running around freely. Tapirs are extremely rare now in the wild. We never do see them here either.

Tena is known in the guidebook circuit for being the place in Ecuador to do whitewater rafting. They charge $45 per person for half a day trip which, relatively speaking, is not much cheaper than what they charge in Colorado. This is my logic anyway for declining on the activity. Instead we opt for a two day, two night jungle tour. This also costs quite a bit more than we like to spend per day ($38 pp / per day with guide and 3 meals), but there aren't jungles in Colorado.
A sculpture in Tena celebrating Quichua Indian culture
There are several tour operators which have cabanas in the jungle and give hikes and such. Here (as in Asia) everyone seems to offer the same thing. It is always difficult to know whom to select. We choose one that is run by a German foundation and owns four hundred hectares of land part of which is partly a former cow pasture and cocoa plantation being regrown into jungle. Their other section is untouched primary forest. They also grow balsa tree saplings which are handed out to the local community and eventually converted into balsa wood artisan products.

A termite nest
Our first day starts off with a medicinal plant hike. For 90 minutes we have a very interesting tour unlocking mysteries of the forest which have been known by the Quichua Indians for forever. We collect guayusa leaves to make a tea that gives energy and staves off hunger. We learn about plants used for all types of ailments, dyes and nutrition, encounter termites that become a natural mosquito repellent when rubbed on the skin or smoked in a fire, a tree used for making homes and blow guns, and find ayahuasca, a hallucinagenic plant, that when prepared properly by a shaman can foretell the future and unknown events of the past. For example, if your camera is stolen, have the shaman prepare the ayahuasca and the camera stealing scene will appear in front of you like a movie and you will know exactly who the culprit is. Or so says our guide. Anyway, if it is a stranger in Quito who nabbed your goods, I am not quite sure what good ayahuasca will do apart from the enjoyment of a trippy experience.
Are you experienced? - Ayahuasca
For lunch we are making our own maito. Maito is a traditional, indigenous dish of whole fish stuffed with palm, rubbed with salt then wrapped in special leaves and cooked by fire. Our guide collected the leaves from the jungle during our hike. The fish (tilapia, actually not native to Ecuador) and palm were bought in the market in Tena. Without any spices it tastes quite good.
Stuff, wrap, salt the fish and then...
...grill and eat maito
That evening after dinner and a short rain shower we take a night hike into the jungle. The highlight of this hike is not what we see which is pretty much just large insects, but what we hear. Owls hooing in the distance and a symphony of tree frogs conversing about who knows what. Oh yeah, we also spot one hairy tarantula ...under our bed.
A hand-sized stick bug
Not sure which one of us is the uninvited guest

Some unwarranted vine swinging
The next morning we head out for a longer hike that will lead us through the primary forest which means the trees will be larger, the jungle more dense and shady. With this area so close to civilization it is near impossible to see any mammals, therefore, I had already decided yesterday that I really want to see a toucan. Anything less will be a disappointment for this pseudo-jungle adventurer. We hear some squawking parrots and just one toucan whistling too far away from our current position. He is taunting me.

Our tour ends at a tree house suspended 100' (33m) in the area with access by a wiggly steel rope ladder. We are assured by our guide that it is completely safe, but our brains tell us differently so we do not linger too long at the top.

We return back and after lunch visit a small museum/cultural center run by an indigenous Quichua community. Here we can find the animals that we will not be able to see in the jungle. After the museum we miss our bus and walk the few kilometers on the main road back to the trail leading to our cabanas. Lo and behold what do we see a glorious toucan darting over our heads like a stubby javelin. It is high in the air, but the beak and body shape is unmistakable. I am very happy. My jungle tour is saved by a thirty minute walk on the asphalt road.

Click this link to read about our interesting visit to see animals around Tena.
Up to the tree shack
The next morning we have one more jungle goodie, fried chontacuro. These are the larvae of the rhinoceros beetle that grow inside of the chonta palm tree in the jungle. In the market they cost $0.25 each. It looks gross, of course, but not bad at all. I cannot really think of anything else that the chontacuro tastes like. The texture is squishy if that helps any.

Feel free to add your descriptions in the comments below.

Collect and fry the larvae and then... the larvae.

The International Rambler Travel Tip:
If you want to really experience the Amazonia in Ecuador I would not suggest doing it from Tena, but going farther east into the jungle maybe starting in Coca or Lago Agrio and a canoe ride from there. Was our tour fun? Sure. Was it worth the money? Probably not. It is more of an effort and will cost a bit more to get deeper into the jungle, but you should be able to see a lot more wildlife and get a better taste of Quichua culture.

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  1. Sergio Mamallacta offers good jungle walks. He's in the phone book in Tena, and speaks English and German.