December 9-11, 2016
This trip was an adventure I’ll remember forever; mostly because I’m so lucky to be able to have visited the Ecuadorian Amazon. And since there was a little bit of fly fishing and some guiding I say it qualifies for my fly fishing blog. I was coming off a great weekend of fly fishing at Campuchoca Lodge near Quito and a successful business week with my developer team at Logic Studio in Quito. The Founder of Logic Studio is a good friend of mine I have known for almost 20 years, Edgar Sanchez. When I told him I’d be looking for adventure the weekend before and after the business trip, he immediately said, “You are coming with Carmiñia and me to the Amazon Basin for the weekend.” So I was excited to spend a long weekend below the Equator. I also immediately asked, “Will we see Capuchins?” Every one said, “Absolutely yes.” But, I had heard that before. In Costa Rica. And we saw lots of monkeys, but we didn’t see any Capuchins. The Capuchin monkey is that smart one you see on documentaries that has learned to clean its food along with a number of many other ingenious hunting techniques.
The only bummer about this trip was that Kelly was not with me. She loved the Costa Rica trip and would have absolutely loved most of the Ecuadorian Amazon. I really missed her at many points of this adventure and yet a handful of times I said to myself, “God, Kelly would hate this.” But, I must have told Edgar and Carmiñia 20 times during the trip: “Kelly would love this.”
So, we set out Friday morning from Quito in Edgar’s Ford SUV. Edgar warned me that it would be at least four hours to the confluence of the Napo and Misahuallí (also called Tena) rivers where we’d catch a boat to the Misahuallí lodge. And after we plowed through the morning Quito traffic he told me it would be a beautiful drive East, over the Andes, past the volcanoes, by numerous waterfalls, and into the Amazon Basin on the other side; it was.
After a few hours of driving we made a sack lunch stop Carmiñia had prepared before the trip at Pena Pivico Park on the Quijos river. After lunch we checked out the river….and I was jonesing hard to fish because it looked like the perfect trout habitat – cold, fast water running down from the Andes.
Edgar and Carmiñia found each other later in life. Edgar is my age and they have only been married a year or so. So, it was like being with newlyweds. That really made me miss Kelly although she won’t even hold my hand because “It’s sweaty”. And Edgar and Carmiñia found each other through running. They are totally fit. In fact, they both just completed a marathon in Brazil. So, in that respect, as couples we are really similar and in terms of fitness, but, I’d be the weak link of the four of us, which is motivating.
When we finally got to the small city of Misahuallí we got out of the car so we could figure out how we arrange the boat across the confluence of the Napo and Misahuallí rivers to get to the Misahuallí lodge. And sure enough, there they were right in the town! Capuchins!
In Spanish too fast for me to understand Edgar talked to the locals and got everything figured out. Carmiñia and I waited down by the river while Edgar navigated the car down to the “beach” to drop off the luggage. And we were surrounded by Capuchin Monkeys in the trees. There had to be 30 of them. It was awesome. We hadn’t even got to the lodge yet and my number one goal was accomplished.
Jonas was to pilot his long skinny panga boat with an outboard motor that are native to the amazon basin. And Edgar not only found out that Jonas was the “great fisherman of the town”, but soon we had arranged a full day of fishing and exploration with Jonas the following day. And I didn’t feel guilty at the time because it was going to be ~ a half day of fishing and the rest a touristy boat ride with adventures. I wanted to do an adventure where all 3 of us could have fun. Jonas said in Spanish – You will see a lot of animals. That was good enough for me.
The boat ride was only 5 minutes or so across the river to the Misahuallí lodge. And the lodge is awesome…beautiful… on an island up high with a great view surrounded by 3 rivers. As we walked up the stairs I was shocked to see a wild Scarlet Macaw hanging out at the lodge. Well, we were to learn quickly that Paco the Parrot was wild…but, he wasn’t a parrot and he didn’t really enjoy the wild.
Our rooms were bungalows on stilts. No TV; no A/C; no internet in the room; great by me. It wasn’t long before we were having a snack and the local beer, Pilsener, while enjoying the view of the river from above. After that we got a boat ride back to town to have a few beers and watch the Capuchins.
We were watching the Capuchins again standing in the town square. They were up in the trees. And we were talking to Jonas arranging the big adventure in the morning. Everything was going perfect. I took sunglasses off to see the Capuchins up in the tree better and that is when it happened: like it was in slow motion, this big ass bug flew out of nowhere right into my left eye and clamped on. It took me 3 attempts to get it out of there and it stung really badly. Jonas was fairly panicked and told Edgar to get me water to flush my eye immediately. We walked briskly across the street and I started flushing. My eye stinged like hell. Jonas explained to Edgar that it was the “Choncherro”. A flying beetle which lays it’s eggs in your eye and if successful it could be bad. You can imagine me thinking, “ok, I have been in the Amazon 3 hours and I’m going blind because of a bug laying its eggs in my eye.” Well, long story short it took 3 days, but my eye finally stopped hurting and the redness went away. Beers really helped the pain that night, though.
We were really exhausted and went to sleep early. Which means I rose around six AM, with the sun, left eye slight red, swollen and stinging. And what was seemingly with thousands of birds doing their thing around my bungalow. I walked the property with my camera, but the birds are so fast and so high it’s hard, if not impossible to get shots of them.
I met Edgar and Carmiñia for breakfast at the lodge (eggs, bread, fruit) and soon Jonas moved his boat across the river and we were ready for the adventure. We took off down the Napo River. The Napo is huge and it’s a feeder to the Amazon River. What surprised me about the Napo was how much current and rapids the Napo had. And this was the lower river point. It must rage in spring. And it must be a very dangerous river in Spring.
Our first stop was to arrange lunch for later in the day. Honestly, I thought we wouldn’t see anything civilized on the boat journey, but we arrived at a ferry crossing where cars are shuttled across. At the ferry crossing there was a small open air restaurant. The owner of the restaurant came running out to take our order. In Spanish he said, “Tilapia, Chicken or meat”. It’s not the nasty farmed tilapia that we get in the states; the ones that live on the bottom of the salmon pens and eat the salmon pellet leftovers and excrement. In Ecuador it’s the real fish caught by nets in the rivers and lakes so the tilapia is pretty good.
Anyways after making the order and agreement to return around 2pm we cruised on to the first fishing stop. It was a really deep froggy pool on the inside of a bend in the river. This is where I learned our fishing guide, Jonas the great fisherman of the village was targeting catfish in hugely deep water with bait. And he was hand lining instead of using a rod. As you well know that is the exact opposite type of water that a fly fisherman would fish in for predators. No problem. I’d just hop out of the boat and walk up river to find some decent water and it wasn’t far. So, I did and fished my way back to the boat with no takes. Carmiñia and Edgar did a little exploring. Well, I decided to fish near Jonas and the boat waiting for Edgar and Carmenia to come back and I stepped in what appeared to be quick sand. I sunk to my thighs. I didn’t really panic because Jonas was within site. But, I lost my sandal to the amazon in the process. It was over 3 feet down and there was no way to find/retrieve it. If I was alone that was have been a bit scary.
The real problem was that Jonas was not guiding. He was simply fishing. I assumed he was going to teach Edgar and Carmiñia how to hand-line fish. But, no, we were paying Jonas to fish by himself. That bugged me. And of course he got skunked. So, I intended to teach Carmiñia how to cast a fly rod anyways so I called her over and that is what I did for the balance of the fishing day: worked on Carmiñia and her cast. Which really pleased me because at this stage in my fly fishing life, I would rather teach beginners to fly fish than to fish myself anyways. We wandered a few miles downriver and into a different river called the Arujiuna where the fishing was supposed to be better. The trick was that Jonas kept picking really deep froggy water backed up against a cliff and parking the boat in it – the exact wrong type of water for a 4 wt and a floating line. But, Carmiñia and I kept trying. And her cast was getting better and better and she was really loving it. And guess what?! She hooked two fish! I even hooked a fish that I had on for a few seconds that looked like a piranha.
One of our stops was an animal sanctuary (not a zoo) right on the Napo river. That was a pleasant surprise and explained the “you are going to see a lot of animals” thing. The sanctuary had 3 types of animals:
- Wild animals that had been domesticated and then abandoned or confiscated, unable to return to the wild.
- Injured animals on the rehab to be released back into the wild.
- Wild animals whose offspring are released into the wild.
Our guide, Camilla, was a Danish scientist doing a 3 week volunteering effort at the sanctuary. I couldn’t help but notice the thousands of mosquito bites she had. She took us through an 1.5 hour tour of the sanctuary and it was pretty interesting. I also got a number of good pictures.
Another one of our stops was to a Kichwa viliage to see how the indigenous people of the Ecuadorian jungle lived. We saw the genius natural traps made by the native people for catching animals. The Shaman who did our tour did a crazy ritual on Carmiñia to rid her of evil spirits or something like that. Right after that he told us for a dollar we could take a picture with his Caymen – so depressing. The poor thing was put in a narrow deep hole of muddy water with his mouth bound. No thank you.
Overall it was a really fun day of adventures. We covered about 5 river miles.
We didn’t pull back into the lodge until after 6pm, showered up, took the “boat taxi” across the river, had dinner, beers, “boat taxi” back and crashed early again.
It was now Sunday morning and like the day before I woke up with the sun and the sound of all the birds….and Paco
But, I was staring at a red eye that night. and the six hour drive back to the Quito airport. the trip went so fast because I had so much fun. Little did I know my biggest adventure in Ecuador was still ahead of me…
We ate breakfast at the lodge again. Took the boat back across the river and Edgar retrieved his car parked right on the “beach” again. We loaded up and off we went.
First there was another resort by way of one lane bridge across the river that Edgar wanted to check out for his next visit. It was an awesome place with many small lakes. And I bet Carminia and I could catch a lot of fish on the fly rod in those lakes. There is no river view, though… which explains why it’s $20/night.
We were told that the resort held a giant special fish. Called a Paiche in the Amazon, we call it an Arapaima. Anyways the lodge owners clapped their hands and splashed the lake and sure enough a seven foot Arapaima swam up. Amazing.
Somehow Edgar got a hold of a map that had identification of caves he had never been to in the province. And somehow on the way out he called the town and got us a “guide” and after 3 or so hours in the car navigating back a different way to Quito we met Robinson Sanchez in Mera. Mera is a tiny town in the eastern foothills of the Ecuadorian Andes. Before we knew it Robinson was in Edgar’s car sitting next to me and we were on a nasty dirt mountain road headed for the caves called Cavernas Rio Anzu; a mountain road that demanded 4-wheel drive, which Edgar’s car did not have. We finally made it to a gravel parking lot with an official government sign for the caves. That was somewhat comforting because there are many caves in the US in the state and national parks that you can visit and do guided tours in. But, what I was quickly to learn is that is the US where everything is indemnified and made easy on the tourist. This is the Andes in Ecuador; I was to find out quickly you were at your own risk and surprises are just part of the deal. I have a weakness in my personality in that I’m an ultra-planner that needs his expectations set. Robinson did not speak English and I could tell that in Spanish with Edgar and Carmiñia that it was like pulling teeth getting information out of him. I was dressed in the clothes I intended to wear on the airplane home. What I gleaned was that there was a short hike to the cave entrance. And that I should change to long pants because our legs might touch the plants on the hike. Ok, fair enough. It was a pain to dig my jungle pants out of my bag for a short hike, but ok.
Surprise #1: It wasn’t a short hike. It was a 3-mile downhill death hike through the jungle, often sweltering on swampy ground; steep and slippery. By the time we got to the cave we were already sweaty and dirty.
Surprise #2: At the cave entrance Robinson handed both Edgar and me a flashlight. Mine was a 50 cent Chinese piece of crap flashlight that was cracked to the point pieces were falling out of it with the batteries barely working – Useless. And I left a high end professional backpacking head lamp in my bag at the car! Uggg…. No problem, I’ll use the flashlight on my phone.
We entered the cave and within 10 yards we had to climb and duck because there was no head room. That just wouldn’t happen in the US. In the US you’d walk with defined paths surrounded on both sides with ropes or guide rails. I assumed it would just open up after that so we could walk around and explore in the cave after that. Well, that first little climb took some agility so that was cool. And you had to use your hands on the climb; it was dirty. And since we only had one flashlight with Robinson carrying two candles the climb was mostly in the dark.
Surprise #3: As we entered the first chamber I was looking forward to standing up and looking around. Not a chance. It was 4 feet in height at most. I injured by back falling in the Upper Kern River just two weeks prior and sure enough I aggravated it again. Now, my back was killing me and I was hunched over because there wasn’t enough room to stand up. Yet, the stalagmites and stalactites were pretty awesome. But, the cave was really muddy and wet. My hands were already muddy so taking pictures with my phone or camera were out of the question. The good news was that Robinson brought a camera and was willing to get his muddy.
Surprise #4: I assumed that was it. We’d take pictures and head out. Because there wasn’t any clear path large enough to go any farther. Oh, was I wrong. Robinson, in Spanish, said, “we keep going.” And I said to myself, “you have to be kidding.” Those who know me know I have done some crazy ass climbing just to get to the good fly fishing so I wasn’t going to be the one that said no. At the same time Carmiñia (“Carmiñia Extrema”) was good with it so I was not going to be the guy that said no with her willing to keep going. So we kept going. And it kept getting harder and harder and the entrances kept getting skinnier and skinnier and required more and more effort to get through. I turned to Edgar and said, “Do you see the irony of me being the tallest of the four of us in a place where it is advantageous to be short?” he laughed.
At one point I had to pull myself up through an entrance just big enough to squeeze my hips through…sideways. In fact, I was stuck for a few seconds. And it kept getting muddier and muddier. And I kept thinking we must be getting to the large chamber where we can stand up. But, no, the space kept getting smaller and smaller. The cave was lined with a thick clay that at points that grabbed your shoes too. So, I figured we were about 100-200 meters into the bowels of the mountain and we were completely muddy head to toe. Finally, we could go no further and started the long process of heading back to the cave entrance. At one point Robinson took a wrong turn! I could help but think, “we are the first people he has ever taken in here.”
Upon exiting the cave we were all smiles because it was a crazy adventure we’d remember for the rest of our lives. It’s now 4pm and I’m sure that we are going to hike all the way back to the car.
Surprise #5: There’s another cave. You have to be kidding me. So, we hike another ½ mile down a treacherous and slippery “trail” to its entrance and do it all over again.
The 3 mile uphill jungle hike back to the car seemed simple compared to what we had just been through. On the way I washed my hands, arms and watch in filthy puddles of rainwater. My shoes and clothes were covered in mud. Upon reaching the car I stripped down and put clean clothes on my dirty body…. Fully knowing I was going to have to fly from Quito to Houston like this. My sole relief was knowing there was a shower at the United Club in Houston after the 5-hour flight.
On the long car journey to the Quito airport I fell asleep a number of times I was so exhausted. On the plane I was in the row all by myself so I laid down over 3 seats and slept the entire way. I slept right through the flight attendants coming with food and drinks. As I showered in the club I smiled…until I felt my back killing me…noticed the hundreds of mosquito bites, and the big welt on my head from bonking it in the cave – totally worth it.