Back in Ecuador for jungle & volcanoes

On our way up through Ecuador, we left some areas undiscovered so we had enough to look forward to on our way back.

Cuyabeno jungle

We could not leave South America without catching a glimpse of the Amazonian rainforest! We booked a 5 days/4 nights tour to explore the Cuyabeno reserve.

Did you know?
The Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is a lowland tropical rainforest in the Amazon region of Ecuador with some of the highest biodiversity on earth. It is the only Amazon park close to the Andes with a dense network of beautiful lakes and navigable creeks.

After a 2-hour bus drive & a 3-hour boat ride we reached Cuyabeno lodge, our home for the next days. During the boat ride we already saw a nice part of the fauna & flora Cuyabeno has to offer (different species of monkeys & birds, pink river dolphins, a giant fish that can grow up to 3m, …). Many more was yet to come.

When entering the reserve we also experienced why it is called rainforest: we were welcomed with warm pouring rain. Overall we cannot complain, because most of the time we had perfect weather conditions and we were actually happy to have a bit of rain once in a while to deal with the jungle’s tropical climate: very hot & extremely humid.

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Our days were filled with boat rides & hikes, enjoying the scenery and spotting wildlife.

Enjoying the scenery

Even without the wildlife, Cuyabeno is quite a special place. We were there in the wet season & our lodge was situated at the edge of Lago Grande, a big lake of which the outskirts are flooded forest. Especially the sunsets & sunrises were breathtaking & serene.

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Our guide showed us pictures of the dry season, when the entire lake is dry & even has some grass fields instead of water. Seems like a totally different world and also worth visiting (cayman spotting is a bit more easier that time!).

Every evening, we went to the middle of the lake to see the sunset & go for a swim. They told us that the middle of the lake is free of caymans, anacondas and piranhas and therefore safe to swim. The reason for this is that in the middle of the lake there are no trees nor plants and not interesting for these species as they don’t find food there. We believed the guide and jumped … As you can see we’re still alive, hooray! Or the explanation was true, or the caymans or anacondas were just not that hungry.

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Spotting wildlife

As always with wildlife, they are masters in camouflage, so we were very thankful to have a guide with extremely good eyes and ears who knows the territory of Cuyabeno’s inhabitants. It was amazing how he could spot some of the animals. We were really impressed, and without him it would often have been just staring at trees or branches. This experience was a good reminder that wildlife is actually wild life, and not a zoo, so it is often hard to see or take good pictures. However, we managed to take a few… :-)

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The closest encounters with monkeys happened just outside the lodge, where we saw monkeys playing or just relaxing in the trees. Extremely close & very fun to watch!

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We also visited an indigenous Siona community & learned to make yucca bread. Their main income nowadays is tourism. The National Reserve works together with the indigenous communities by using their canoes to transport tourists & visiting their community. As the constitution states that the indigenas are the owners of their part of rain forest, it is very important to help generating an income for them and involve them in this eco-tourism so that they are not tempted to sell their land to oil companies.

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Quilotoa

Our next destination was Quilotoa, a volcano that sits at 3800m. Coming from sea level in the jungle, we knew that this was a big jump, so we made one overnight stop at Cascada San Rafael (1330m) before we chose the little town of Chugchilan at 3200m as our base to explore the Quilotoa region.

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We car-camped at a wonderful eco lodge The Black Sheep Inn, where we could use all the facilities of which the most important one was the warm & cosy living room. It was a big change coming from the tropical jungle, 30 degrees, where we were sweating the whole day through, to the mountains where we kept ourselves warm at the fire with a jar of tea.

Upon arrival, we were suffering a bit from the rapid change in altitude (small head ache, breathing becomes a bit harder, not being able to sleep very well, …) and with our final goal in mind: climbing Chimborazo (6300m), we knew that we were not there yet. Furthermore, with the Caribbean relaxed way of life in Colombia, we had not been hiking for a while, so we needed some exercise.

So we filled our days with acclimatizing & hiking. We took the hiking part real serious the following 3 days.

Day 1

On day 1 we did 2 hikes in the neighborhood (the “Skywalk” & the “Ridge hike”), good for 5 hours of exercise with lots of ups & downs in an impressive scenery. The names of the hikes were well chosen.

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Day 2

The next day we stuffed our backpacks with tent, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, warm clothes & food and we were ready to go. The training was getting very serious, starting with a descent from 3200m to 2800m (in which we took a wrong turn & added 1 extra hiking hour), to then hike up again to the Quilotoa crater rim at 3800m. 6 hours hiking time in total. Coming from sea level 2 days earlier and with the weight of the backpack, we must admit it was hard. But the rewarding views at the edge of the crater were A-MA-ZING!

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Did you know?
The Quilotoa crater has a diameter of 3km and has accumulated a 250m deep crater lake, which has a greenish color as a result of dissolved minerals. The crater rim is highly irregular and reaches its maximum elevations (3810 m to the N, 3894 m to the NW and 3915 m to the SE) at three lava domes.

The plan was to descend and camp at the side of the lake (because camping at the ridge is too cold & windy), but on our way there we found a perfect spot we had all to ourselves. We were convinced that it couldn’t get any better than this so we put up our tent.

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What a wonderful experience to see the sun go down on the lake, straight from our tent, tucked away in our sleeping bags. With the hard hike of that day & the fact that there is not much to see or do after sunset, I think we had a new bed time record: 18.45 :-) .

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Day 3

The good thing about going to sleep early is that we were awake before dawn, and could again witness a magical sunrise!

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It was good that we started the day early as we had much more hiking to do that day. We started with going all the way around the crater (which is 10km & took us almost 5 hours, as it is not really a walk in the park, and definitely not with 11-15kg on your back).

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After this we still had to hike all the way “home”, which meant another 12km, descending 1000m to then climb up 500m again. After 8 hours of hiking that day, the last stretch uphill was killing our legs & backs. That evening, the hot shower felt like paradise & the homemade pizza tasted like heaven. Like two elderly human beings, we went to bed early again.

The next day, still sour & broken, we were happy to have a driving (and not hiking) day :-) . We drove to Riobamba where we met John, the owner of Andean Adventures, the company that we chose to climb Mount Chimborazo with. Together with John we made an acclimatization & hiking planning for the next days, which would give us a good chance to summit Chimborazo.

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Did you know?
Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador. Its location along the equatorial bulge makes its summit the farthest point on the Earth’s surface from the Earth’s center and the closest to the sun.

We were optimistic but realistic, knowing that the success rate is about 30% for this mountain. After Benjamin asking about the risks, I became a little less optimistic… John told us that 2 men died earlier this year on the mountain, from a heart attack. One man in his sixties, but the other one (& this happened just 3 weeks ago) was a 35 year old. It became clear this was not just a tough hike that we were going to do…

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Day 1

That night we slept at 3800m, before we would start the first part of our hike up the lower slopes of Mount Chimborazo the next day. We started at the visitor center (4300m) & walked up to Refugio Carrell (4800m), which was going to be our home & base point for hiking for the next days.

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We hiked up to the second refugio (5000m) & a bit more up to a (really!) small lagoon (5100m). We believe this is actually a lagoon in another season. Afterwards we descended to the refugio, which we had all for ourselves that evening and night, so our first night was a quiet one.

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Day 2

The second day we hiked to “The Needles” (5300m). A place with incredible views on the valley. We hiked up a bit more, but the last part was really scrambling and not fun anymore without the appropriate gear. Nevertheless we reached 5600m, which can count as acclimatization hike. The highest point so far in our life!

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After another beautiful sunset, we got to bed early (as always in the mountains) but at 9PM we (or mainly me) were awakened from the other people in our room that were going to summit that night. The downside of sleeping in dormitories…

Day 3

Summit day! But as you only start the climb at 10PM in the evening, we still had a long day to go. We hiked again to the Needles and stayed there for a while in order to get our bodies used to this altitude.

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Then back to the refugio where we tried on our gear and the rest of the day we had nothing to do but eating, resting & sleeping. Unfortunately, we were not able to catch a lot of sleep so when the alarm went at 9PM we were already/still awake… ànd nervous/excited!

We ate a bit of granola & chocolate before leaving, but we both had difficulties enjoying our meal and when we left at 10PM we were not feeling perfectly “fit”.

Did you know?
The reason why you start at 10PM is because it is a long way up to the summit. It takes 7 to 9 hours, and the turnaround time is 8AM. This means if you did not reach the summit before 8AM you have to get back. When the sun starts hitting the glacier, it becomes too dangerous for avalanches, crevasses & rock fall.

 

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We hiked for hours in the dark night, under a sky full of stars and seeing the lights of the cities beneath us. The first part was on rocks and after a few hours we put on crampons before we went on the snow and ice. Our pace was good, our breathing was (according to the altitude) quite good, but I must admit that I couldn’t keep my mind from popping up negative thoughts about all the bad things that could happen. The stories of people having a heart attack & the many in memoriam crosses on the mountain apparently really frightened me.

We took only short breaks, as it was too cold to stop for a while. We tried to eat something, but we both felt bad afterwards, and Benjamin even had to throw up after eating the tiniest piece of chocolate. We were at 5900m at that time & continued our steep climb on the snow & ice. We reached 6100m (we were already hiking for 7 hours by then), but every step was getting harder as we were really tired. Benjamin was feeling worse than me, but with all the disaster scenarios in my mind, I didn’t want to force him or myself to go any further so we decided to turn around. We were still 2 hours away from the summit & needed also energy for the steep descent. With Benjamin throwing up another time on the way down and me struggling the last hour to get down (being so tired that I slid & fell the whole time), we knew we made the right decision to turn around.

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It is sad that we didn’t make it to the top and even were already a whole stretch back down before sunrise, but at that time we just listened to our bodies and were already happy that we reached the 6000-er limit which was the starting point for choosing Chimborazo. We didn’t see the views from the summit but were glad to see the shadow of Chimborazo once the sun was there.

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At 8AM we were back at the refugio, tired as hell, where we finally managed to eat something and gain some strengths. We drove an hour or two to a town at lower altitude, where we checked in a hostel and did nothing but relaxing & sleeping for the rest of the day. Comfort food that night (pizza!), another early sleep & the day after we already felt so much better!

Although not everything went as hoped for, we have wonderful memories of these last 2 weeks in Ecuador! We also saw that it does not always rain, so we can adjust our earlier image :-) . We were ready to leave Ecuador and drove off in the direction of the border with Peru.
 

Driving days to come…

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Peruvian desert, 4 days, 2500 km

The desert in Northern Peru is rather ugly, and the towns that you pass are even uglier and very hectic with tuk-tuks driving everywhere they can.

Meeting a Belgian couple, who are traveling with their van (14 months since the last time we saw a Belgian license plate!), and a sushi stop in Lima brightened up our driving days!

The desert in Southern Peru surprised us, it was cleaner, the ocean looked nicer & the roads were empty. We left Peru with a good feeling!

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Chilean desert, 2 days, 900 km

Hello again Chile! How we have longed for your wine! No wonder that the first thing we did was buying wine & a good piece of meat to prepare at the camping. Njummie!

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After that, some more desert driving in the direction of Argentina.

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It was good to see the landscape of San Pedro de Atacama again (and the cocktails of a bar we also visited a few months ago).

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We left Chile via Paso Jama, along which we made many photo stops & were again mesmerized by the altiplano landscapes. We could only think about how much we will miss this!

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See it, live it, feel it in this little video:

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