Ups and Downs in Tena

(Tena, Ecuador – 29 August, 2013) Amazing highs and terrifying lows were our themes in Tena. Much of our roller coaster ride was powered by the weather. We were in Tena just two full days, plus a couple of half days when you count the coming and going. The weather alternated perfectly between rain and shine as if Mother Nature had programmed it that way.

Reaching Tena

I wouldn’t say Tena itself is a “pretty” town, but it certainly is located in a beautiful part of Ecuador. It sits on the western edge of the grand Amazon about 4 1/2 hours to the east and south of Quito. To get there from our hostel in midtown Quito, we first took a taxi to the bus terminal in the south….only to retrace our route back northward again by bus so we could exit the Quito valley from its northeast corner. But I said Tena lies to the south of Quito. (Glad you’re following along, Magellan!) That meant our northward direction was eventually followed by double-reverse back south again. No doubt these highways were not built by crows.

It was all slow-going, too. I swear we were two hours into our bus ride and we had still not fully escaped Quito’s orbit. Better progress could have been made if the driver hadn’t been moving at school zone speeds and stopping every three feet to let more passengers on….turning a 4 1/2 hour trip into a 6 hour slog. Making matters worse was the parade of vendors who boarded the bus periodically to sell everything from fruit cups to handmade jewelry to religion. At least they did distract us from the on-board movie offering– The Mechanic, a Jason Statham bomb with precious few redeeming qualities.

By the time we reached Tena, rain was falling at a nice clip; not pouring, but hard enough to make us hustle through the streets to a place where we could catch a cab to the hostel. It took us a soaked eternity to find a vacant cab. When the rains come down, the cabs fill up.

Travel days are rarely fun, but this one was among the worst.

Eco and Friendly

All was good once we reached the hostel, the Pakay Ecolodge. It’s run by a young-ish couple, Inga from Germany and her Ecuadorian husband, Tony. I didn’t get the story of how these two met, unfortunately. From what I could tell, Pakay Ecolodge’s primary eco-friendly feature was a “dry” toilet. The concept makes a lot of sense, starting with not using fresh water to wash away our waste. In so many parts of the world, fresh, drinkable water is a scarcity. Using it in our toilets is so obviously wasteful when you think about it. Especially when a dry (albeit odiferous) alternative exists.

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Basically, you do your business in a trashcan placed in a cabinet underneath the toilet seat. The can is filled with sawdust so don’t wait for a splash. After each use, you add additional sawdust on top. [Doesn’t seem a whole lot different from a cat using a litter box, really.] Every couple of days you dump the contents of the trashcan into a compost bin. In short order, you’ve got some grade-A fertilizer ready for use in your garden.

You might need some extra candles in the bathroom, if you ever decide to go dry yourself.

White Water Under Blue Skies

A beautiful sunny day greeted us the next morning. We’d signed up for a whitewater rafting trip so the brilliant weather was making us feel great about our timing. Rafting one day after a rain meant we’d find the rapids very entertaining, too.

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Jessica and I loaded ourselves into a shuttle-truck with three others from our hostel, Andy, Chris and Daniel, and down to the river we went. Andy (another traveler from Germany) had the challenge of an unsettled stomach that morning and wasn’t sure if he’d make it all the way. Chris and Daniel were second cousins from North Carolina and Tennessee, respectively. Skip the dueling banjo music, neither one of them had southern accents.

Our rafting guide’s name was Diego and he was easy to like from the start– good English, a sense of humor with just the right amount of bite, and 11 years of whitewater experience. After a brief but thorough review of the equipment and safety procedures, we loaded onto the raft and eagerly shoved ourselves away from the bank. Always nearby were two additional single-seaters manned by Diego’s assistants. One was a blue kayak piloted by a 15 year old Ecuadorian hot-shot named Brian, and the other was a yellow sea kayak they all referred to as the “ducky.” Jonathan, a rare tall Ecuadorian with a Castro-esque beard, manned it.

Andy and I volunteered for the front row seats, Chris and Daniel sat in the center and Jessica took up a seat in the third partition…. next to a cooler containing our lunch. We would all switch around to different spots on the raft throughout the journey, that’s simply how we began. Diego sat in the very back to steer while shouting out his commands: “Forward!” “Stop,” And the final command we hoped would never be needed, “Inside!!!” If we heard Diego shout that last one, it meant throwing ourselves into the center of the raft for maximum safety.

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The first set of rapids came to us fast and furious. KA-SNAPS! That first splash of snow-melt sure shocked me like a taser. Now I know how those winning coaches feel when their players dump a cooler of gatorade on their backs…only that Andy and I took a direct hit to the front. No time to ponder, more rapids were ahead and Diego was screaming excitedly, “Forward! Forward!” We continued plowing headlong into the teeth of the rapids until finally emerging to a calmer stretch of river. Exclamations of “Wow!” “Oh my God!” and “What just happened?” filled the boat. We all talked at once, instantly recounting what it was like for us to slay our first dragon. Click here to see a video I uploaded to Youtube.

Jessica and I, along with Mallorie, too (Jessica’s daughter), had done whitewater rafting once before in Moab, Utah. Those were class 1 or 2 rapids. Here in Tena, Ecuador, on the Jatunyaku River, we were getting rolled by vicious class 3 and 4 sized rapids. Big diff, I’m here to report. Officially, they were class 3, but as Diego quipped, “I can make them a class 4, if you want.” And he did.

Rapids come in all shapes and sizes. They churn, tumble, swirl and roar. And when the riverbed conditions are just so, they create standing mountain peaks of water; together forming mini-mountain ranges for our raft to plow over and through. Typically, the highest mound of water sits near the entrance to each set of rapids. That’s where Diego was sure to aim our warship every single time with his urgent battle cries of FORWARD! FORWARD MY TEAM!!!

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Riding first position delivered the greatest fear factor. As each mound of water was conquered the next towered high overhead ready for its turn to soak you or flip you, whichever was its whim. Imagine looking up and seeing a 10 ft tall linebacker of water in your face and having no choice but to take it on. It was exhilarating!

Not all of my time was spent in the raft. I took a few turns in the ducky, too. (See me in the photo collage, above) This was perhaps even more of an adrenaline rush than the raft. Theoretically, Diego should only let his clients ride the smaller rapids in the ducky, but there didn’t seem to be any smaller rapids on our day. During one particularly turbulent stretch I went charging in with my ducky, paddle whipping furiously from side to side in an effort to keep my nose pointed straight. That’s the secret, too. ‘Cause once you get hit from the side, you are out of the ducky and soaked. This did happen to me once.

The calm-flowing portions of the river were equally rewarding, mostly because it was a such a spectacularly gorgeous day. The scenery was one postcard after another. We stopped for a lunch of burritos, banana bread, and pineapple before continuing through more rapids to the take out point. By the way, Andy, the guy with the upset stomach, decided to catch a cab back to the hostel during our lunch break. I guess swirling rapids and a swirling stomach don’t mix. For the rest of us, it was a perfect day.

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Wet Caves and Muddy Canyons

Clouds and rain took over the very next day. They even got a head-start on us by pushing in overnight. Perhaps our scheduled hikes would be canceled due to the inclement weather? Uh, not so fast, amigo. As Tony (owner of the hostel and our guide) explained, we were in a RAINforest. It would make no sense to cancel a hike due to rain. So, we were all out-fitted with rubber “fireman” boots and loaded into Tony’s 1981 Range Rover. You might recall that Tony was also the proprietor of the hostel we stayed in. He grew up in Tena and knew it inside out. No more knowledgable guide existed.

Our excursion was comprised of two parts, a cave hike first and later a steep trek down inside a scenic canyon to a secluded swimming hole. We were mostly the same team from yesterday’s rafting trip- Andy (now recovered from his stomach bug), Chris and Daniel -but also added was a german girl named Yana. Finally, Jessica was not the only girl on one of our excursions. The light but steady rains showed no signs of letting up so those who had rain gear wore it. Chris, who lost his rain jacket in an earlier part of his trip, went shirtless, a bold choice given the temperature.

The hike to the cave wasn’t long and Tony stopped a couple of times to talk about some of the unique plants and animals. He even showed us the ayahuasca vine, used by the local shaman in religious ceremonies. It’s hallucinogenic properties reportedly make many people see God. A lot of people vomit after drinking the ayahuasca potion, too.

The small mouth of the cave was down a scramble of large rocks and extremely well-hidden. It took a lot of ducking, weaving and contorting to slip inside, but once we were all in (and out of the rain) we could stand up without worry. Not everyone brought a headlamp (or other flashlight), so we alternated those with and without. Jessica and I had ours and we were happy we did. The cave was pitch black otherwise.

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After walking single file just a short distance we came into a living room sized cavern. Small and obviously man-made mounds of rubble were strangely placed around the room. Tony explained that this was the place the Shaman holds his healing ceremonies with the ayahuasca. Looked like a great place for a bad trip to me. The hike continued deeper into the cave, around, over and under rock formations of all variety. Soon we could hear rushing water in the darkened distance. Louder and louder it echoed with each forward step until soon we were splashing through a subterranean stream. Droplets of water could soon be felt spitting at us from all sides as more channels of flowing water joined to our stream making it roar more loudly.

Finally we arrived to the place we would exit this underground world. Large jagged boulders stacked at all angles would have to be scaled if we wanted to see daylight again. The problem was that a torrential shower was battering the precise spot of our climb. Someone had mercifully left a knotted rope for us to grab and pull ourselves up with, but that lessened the challenge by only a small degree. Jessica went first and clawed her way up into the splattering shower. I followed and got the soaking cold shower treatment all over my head and back. It was exhilarating.

The picture below shows us crawling out of the cave.

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Scary Moments on a Muddy Trail

They said that even on days without rain, the hiking trail through the canyon and down to the swimming hole is muddy. After all, it’s a rainforest and always quite moist and humid under the canopy of trees even when the sun is shining. That is why we were all issued rubber boots specifically for this hike. However, on rainy days like ours the mud-factor goes up by at least 20 points. Tony offered us two bamboo walking sticks in case anyone thought they might help. Seeing that no one appeared interested, Jessica ended up using both of them. They totally saved her life, too. With her injured left knee, the walking sticks provided the additional support she needed.

The trail down into the canyon was primitive to say the least. The closest thing we found to man-made help on the trail were a couple of crudely fashioned ladders made from tree limbs. Otherwise, it was slick-muddy stepping the whole way. Thank goodness for the exposed roots of trees that offered an occasional foothold. Going down was really rough on Jessica’s knee. She was wearing her brace, but it’s just slow-going any way you slice it. She fell on her butt once, then twice, and another time over to the side. In one particularly precarious down-step, she lost her footing, screamed, and swung out over the plummeting trail held aloft only by one of the walking sticks. I was on the trail just below her and she says she saw my eyes get really big. The whole episode lasted a split second, but was genuinely scary and could have resulted in a serious fall if she hadn’t caught herself.

Freaked out though she was, there was no turning back. We continued the hike slowly but slowly, descending to further depths on the mud-slick trail, crossing log bridges that hung over raging torrents, rock-hopping through running streams and easing our way down the shaky tree-limb ladders. We had a goal and it would be met…the swimming hole. I’m sure everyone had the same thought, this better be the best GD swimming hole in Ecuador.

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The place of the swimming hole was really cool. Just one problem, there was too much swirling water in it for us to safely swim. It was as if all the rains from the entire area had funneled into this one spot. Water tumbled down from the high walls surrounding the space and drained furiously into the hole through an opening in a lower portion of the wall. Under normal conditions, we would have squeezed ourselves into that opening and explored the cave inside, but not on this day. Too much water water everywhere.

We ate lunch in the rain on the banks of the swimming hole. Tony pointed to a relatively calm area of the water and said it’d be okay to swim there if anyone wanted to. There were no takers. Our goal now reached (and lunch eaten) there was nothing left but to hike our way out of there; the rescue helicopter would not be coming for us. Jessica made this video in case she wasn’t able to make it back to civilization…



Transcript of video:

My last hours. It’s not funny, I’m really scared. This has been the most treacherous journey to this spot. I’ve fallen on my butt six times and almost rolled down the hill to my death. Now show ’em the place! Make sure you get ALL of it.

Winding Down Our Time in Tena

We were back to great weather on our final day in Tena. Good thing, too, for we needed the sun dry out our things from the previous day’s soaking. I had one more Tena adventure in me- a climb to the top of an observation tower built just higher than the forest canopy. It was located in a small national park about 45 minutes outside of Tena. I went with Chris and Daniel while Jessica relaxed the morning away in the hostel. After finding the tower, no small feat, we had to climb it. You can see from the photos just how tiny the structure was. Daniel and I both went up, but Chris (who is not a big fan of heights) decided this challenge wasn’t for him.

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Tena, Ecuador had its highs and lows. We have no regrets for any of it. This year is ours for adventure and Tena gave us more than our share of thrills and spills.

Next stop, the Galápagos Islands.

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