Cairngorm Wildlife Diary for

Allan and Heather's Ecuador trip in 2009

Enjoy this very special diary and please do get in touch if you have any comments to make.

You can click here to email Allan or Heather

or phone 01479 831768 or 07787 323264

or write to
Cairngorm Wildlife, 23 Craigie Avenue, Boat of Garten
Inverness-shire PH24 3BL Scotland

Tues 3 Nov
Drove to Edinburgh in the late afternoon.

Weds 4 Nov
Got to Edinburgh Airport for our 1620 flight to LHR where we got the shuttle to the Comfort Hotel. The bus reversed into a taxi at the hotel but otherwise all OK.

Thurs 5 Nov
I had set both alarms but Bea’s went off an hour early next morning because it had not been reset when the clocks changed. The flight to Madrid went fine and the transfer to the Quito flight went smoothly. We met up with 7 of our SAGA group during the transfer having already identified six of them earlier. We took off from Madrid half an hour late. It wasn’t easy working out how much longer the flight would be at any point because our earlier calculations had not taken into account the rather unusual triangular route the plane takes. The penny dropped at the end of the holiday when we flew the other two legs of the triangle but that did not help us on the outward flight. Iberian Airways does not believe in keeping the passengers informed of progress, unlike other airlines that display ETAs and other details on the TV screens. My GPS was some help and in the end it was a 10 hour, 20 minute flight and we arrived at about 1645 local time.

We were met at Quito by the SAGA rep Marco plus Ian Ellis who had been our wildlife guide for our recent Madagascar trip; very good news indeed. We got to the hotel without delay and had an early night.

Fri 6th Nov
We were up at 0400 and quite confused about the date. It took us till lunchtime to finally sort it out. This morning we found another good reason why Bea and I felt rough yesterday evening apart from the long journey - Quito is more than 9,000 feet above sea level. Several of our group felt out of breath and Bea was headachy. We caught the 0700 flight from Quito to Coca where our river trip would begin in earnest. We flew over the Andes which has several volcanoes, some of which are still active and some are so high that they are permanently snow-covered.

Coca's tame toucan

At Coca we had a 45 minute wait for our motorised canoe (MC) which was bringing the previous week’s clients back from the Manatee Amazon Explorer river boat that was going to be our home for the next week. During the short bus ride from the airport to the river Marco gave us some background information about Ecuador, including the fact that, as its name suggests, it lies on the equator and therefore it does not have noticeable seasons and the hours of daylight are the same all year round, 0600 to 1800.


The Napo river was very low due to a lack of rain in recent months so navigation was quite difficult for boat crews. Even the MC had difficulty in avoiding the sand bars and had to weave back and forth across the river to find the channels. It took 3 hours travelling more or less south-east to reach the Manatee which was moored further downstream than usual due to the low river level. The MC was capable of carrying about 30 people and was quite a narrow boat with a removable canvas roof and 2 outboard engines at the back ; hardly my idea of a canoe but a wonderful craft ideally suited to this huge river. We sat three abreast on the comfortable padded bench seats in our orange lifejackets (the staff wore yellow ones) and thoroughly enjoyed our first taste of Amazonia. Shortly before we reached the Manatee a much faster boat overtook us and its bow wave came over the side of our craft soaking some of our group and some of the luggage. The incident, though causing considerable inconvenience to some of the group, had benefits because it kick started the bonding process through shared adversity and a common enemy. Bea’s camera instantly stopped working, my bag and some of its contents got rather wet and Celia, sitting in front of me, who bore the brunt of the deluge, was soaked to the skin.

At 12 noon we reached the Manatee and there was a short briefing and room allocation at which point we all went for dry clothes and then to the bar. Our group was 13 people plus guides but we did not have the Manatee to ourselves because a group of 9 Germans (mostly) were also booked in. Lunch was at 1315 and then came the main briefing at 1430. No real surprises – we were heading down the Napo river to a remote area along the border with Peru.

The Manatee Amazon Explorer

The place was devoid of roads and people - and wildlife still flourished mostly without interference. Very few humans have set foot in the area and most of it is impassable rainforest where the only means of travel is by boat. To be certain of reaching the furthest point in the time allowed the Manatee would be using every hour of daylight over the next two days to navigate down the Napo while we and the guides used the MC to visit local sites and then catch up with the Manatee later.

There was a fire drill at 1530 and snacks were to be served at 1730, although there wasn’t much left by then; the less said about that the better. There was supposed to be a night walk this evening but due to our exhausted state it was postponed until another evening.

Relaxing on the Manatee after the long journey

While all this was going on the Manatee continued down river looking for a particular tree to tie up to. We never did find out what was so special about that tree and by the time it was located it was fully dark. (S 00* 32’ 38.8”, W 75* 59’ 56.0”)

There were two lectures before dinner, one for the Germans at 1800 and one for us at 1830 just as the boat was being tied up for the night. Dinner followed and the conversation soon revealed differences of philosophy between some of us. A hasty change of subject and an early departure for Ian’s checklist session (almost a nightly occurrence) avoided things getting too heated. Before going to bed we enjoyed a spectacular display of lightning high among the clouds.

Sat 7th Nov
Up at 0530, breakfast at 0630 and away on the MC at 0715. Weather was damp and misty at first but it soon dried up which would help dry the wet clothes from my bag that we had hung outside our cabin before we left.

The Manatee ploughed its steady way down the Napo as we sped ahead in the smaller craft, exploring the channels and watching the banks for wildlife. Wherever we stopped to watch something among the trees the Manatee gained ground on us and twice caught us up.

Turkey vultures

We had been warned that we might not see a huge amount of wildlife – much of it hid deep in the surrounding rainforest which stretched for miles and miles in all directions. We came across occasional small settlements of indigenous people but the further we went the scarcer they became and they would peter out altogether in two days time.

A few birds were seen among the trees to keep the interest going but the most fascinating encounter was with a small snake, swimming across the surface of the river more than half a mile from the nearest shore. It was about two feet long with black, red and white stripes and first thoughts were based on it being a coral snake. However, back at the Manatee at 10-ish various books from the ship’s library were perused and compared on Milton’s laptop (Milton was one of the guides that came with the Manatee) with the pictures on memory cards from our cameras.   The results were inconclusive. In the end we decided it was a new species previously unknown to science so we dubbed it the “SAGA Snake”.

The SAGA snake

This was cause for celebration so we sampled the local beer which turned out to be Pilsner. The snake continued to be the hot topic and there was general regret that having found a new species we had entirely failed to act in the spirit of our forefathers; we really should have killed it and dissected it for the sake of conservation and for its own well being.

Lunch was at 1215 and an hour later we disembarked at a small settlement called Nuevo Rocafuerte near the Peru border (S 00* 55’ 09.1”, W 75* 24’ 05.9”). There was a small hospital in the village run by the church and staffed with young trainee doctors as part of the final two-years of their course.

She's in charge

The facilities included a remote link with a hospital in a city via satellite, camera and a power-point projector to help the young doctors with diagnosis and treatment of difficult cases. Finding such innovation in this remote place felt a bit weird but several of us were moved to make contributions to something so worthwhile.

At 1500 we set off again and immediately came to the Peru border which turned and ran along the river, the river now being the border and reckoned to be international water. Forty minutes later we arrived at the junction with Aguarica River at a place called Ballesteros (S 00* 57’ 56.6”, W 75* 11’ 51.9”). The Peru border now turned up this river and so did we. Having been travelling south-east for two days we were now heading north, more or less. Quite soon we caught up with the mother-ship (Manatee) and climbed aboard as it continued its way up the Aguarica, getting ever further away from civilisation. This is the largest tributary of the Napo river and flows out of a region where “the hand of man seldom sets foot”, as someone once famously said.

So far the landscape has been fairly uniform, that is mostly invisible behind the tree-lined banks of the river. The Napo is more than 2 miles wide for much of its length and although the Aguarica is much less than that the banks are similar with hardly a break in the tree line.

Abandoned army post

In this border region we began to come across the occasional, mostly abandoned, matching pairs of border posts facing each other across the river where the soldiers from Ecuador and Peru could glare at each other across the river and exchange the odd volley of rifle fire at times when their countries were at war – which history tells us has been quite often. Currently relations are OK between the countries but.........

At 1715 there was great excitement as a huge anaconda was sighted in the river. It was wrapped around a rock so its length was hard to judge but trust me it was massive.


Unfortunately it was also dead and one of our company remarked he hoped it died of old age because he did not want to meet up with anything capable of killing that monster. This was thought-provoking because ten minutes later the Manatee tied up for the night to a tree on the same side of the river as the dead anaconda. It was of course the Ecuador bank for political reasons, although the chances of us getting caught on the Peru bank were just about nil out here.

As darkness fell the lightning began again, this time accompanied by heavy dark clouds that seemed to be coming our way.

There were two briefings about the following day each night, one for the Germans followed by one for us – quite unnecessary in our view because when I sat in on the German briefing one evening (it was in the bar!) it was delivered in English (which would have done nicely for us) then translated into German by their interpreter. OK, in some cases their schedule for the next day varied ever-so-slightly from ours but all the same to go through the same half-hour rigmarole twice seemed a bit daft.


At 2000 we all went on a night walk but didn’t see much, the highlights being a wolf spider and a small tarantula. Overnight there was heavy rain which was good for two reasons; it would make the wildlife more active and it would bring the river level up.

Sun 8th Nov
Up at 0430, much to the despair of our German companions, and then away in the MC to explore the waterways into the far depths of the flooded forest. It was still raining and quite chilly as we drove up the Aguarica river to find the mouth of its tributary, the Lagarto (which means “caiman”) river.


It took more than two hours to do so and on the way we passed more matching Ecuador/Peru border posts; we were still travelling along the border.

Eventually we reached the Lagarto (S 00* 89’ 15.0”, W 75* 15’ 5.0”) at another pair of border posts where the border made another turn to follow our new course up this much smaller river. The Ecuador post was still manned so Milton handed the guard a newspaper containing a sheet with our passport numbers written on it. Why was it wrapped in a newspaper? Best not to ask. Milton tried to do the same on the Peru side but there was no-one home. Keeping these posts supplied must be a logistical nightmare with no roads in the area so it’s hardly surprising most have been left for the rainforest to reclaim.

There really is a bird in this picture

The Lagarto is a small blackwater river with clear water fed from local rainfall, whereas the Napo and Aguarico are whitewater rivers full of sediments from the mountains. The confluence is a very distinct line, one side of which has milky pale brown water full of sandy particles and the other which has dark, crystal clear water.

A distinct line between the two rivers

Pink river dolphins and manatee are much more likely to be found in the blackwater rivers, so this was exactly where we wanted to be.

After about 45 minutes we pulled over and tied up to the Peru bank for breakfast of sandwiches, biscuits, tea and coffee. The rain was still falling so we did not stay long and were soon cruising up the narrow stream, stopping here and there to photograph some of the birds. The canvas roof of the boat was rolled open despite the weather so that everyone could see the wildlife and we were soon rewarded with a scarce mammal; a southern two-toed sloth. We got lots of photos and a bit of video before the poor creature got totally fed up with us and climbed up into the canopy. A bit further on we found two capybaras in two different places and again the cameras came out to record the event.

A two-toed sloth.................. and a capybara

At about this time we stopped again on the Peru shore (very naughty of us) for a toilet break. A tent was erected over a toilet seat (yes, just a seat) for the ladies and the men were to make their own arrangements among the trees. However, the UK ladies did the same as the men and headed for the bushes.

The ladies loo - before and after the tent went up

Eventually we reached our furthest point, Amuya Lake at S00*36’ 07.6”, W 75* 14’ 27.9”. As we approached the small lake we began to see pink river dolphins; for some of us the number-one target species for this trip. Then, in the lake itself, there was a group of four of the animals and we stopped to take photos and to watch for a while before our guides announced it was time for a swim.

Spot the intelligent mammal

Raoul was first in and I was not far behind. It may be stretching a point to say we were swimming with the dolphins because they were nowhere to be seen by now but they had certainly been swimming in this very spot just a few minutes before. Gradually more of our party plucked up courage to take the plunge and a very pleasant half hour was spent in the warm water. It was only later that we learned red piranhas and black caiman also inhabit all of the lakes in Amazonia.

Beers and cokes were distributed among the party as we dressed for the return journey down the Lagarto to the Aguarico to find the Manatee at whatever point she had managed to reach without getting stuck on the sandbanks. It was 1300 before she hove into view. We had been on the go for nearly 8 hours and it was a wet and bedraggled crew that climbed on board in search of dry clothes and some shelter from the elements. The rain had eased off a bit by this time so it did not take long for our spirits to recover and we could look back with pleasure at an amazing experience.

We picked up all sorts of snippets of information in the course of this trip. For example there are more than 600 species of fish in the Napo/Aguarico catchments, which is more than in the 200 mile wide strip of Pacific Ocean along the west coast of the Americas. Also there are more different species of fish in the Amazon river than in all of the world's oceans added together.

After lunch we had a break before setting off for a forest walk at one of the abandoned border posts at the Aguarica/Napo confluence.

Army trench and birdwatching at the abandoned camp

I'm sure there used to be a bridge somewhere round here.

We found a three-toed sloth and a nest of angry biting bees which we had upset by making too much noise. Several of us got bitten but no real harm done.

Bees nest and an owl-eyed moth

There were also some other amazing insects among the trees but night was falling so we had to get back in the MC to chase after the Manatee which as usual was steaming on without us. We eventually caught up with it in near-darkness at 1825 about 9 miles south east from Nuevo Rocafuerte which we had visited the previous day.

Dinner was wonderful, as were all the meals on this trip. It is extraordinary how the chef manages to feed more than thirty people so well for a week, given the cramped conditions both for cooking and for storage.

After dinner we had our usual checklist session and then a briefing for tomorrow, which would involve another very early start.

Mon 9th Nov
Rise and shine at 0430 to a bright and dry morning ready for a trip up another blackwater river to a large lake in the Yasuni National Park.

We set off in the MC at 0530 up the Napo river to the mouth of the Yasuni river where once again we crossed over the line between the cloudy waters of the main river and the clear waters of its tributary (S 00* 55’ 55.7”, W 75* 23’ 13.1”) about a mile short of the hospital we had visited at Nuevo Rocafuerte. We headed slowly up the Yasuni, passing another two army posts (we were still exactly on the border) and we passed a small community, little more than a family compound, and about an hour later we pulled over at an empty National Park building for a comfort break and breakfast.

The crew were alert for signs of wildlife

From this point we were beyond all further signs of human occupation into an area occupied only by wild creatures. We were hopeful of more river dolphins but had to make do with colourful birds and insects and a few small turtles.

River turtles and a weaver bird nest

Eventually we came out of the forest into a wide open area occupied by Yasuni Lake, named after the caiman that lives there (S 00* 59’ 48.6”, W75* 27’ 08.0”). Guide Marco told us the caiman rest up in the bankside vegetation during the day and come out at night. We hoped he was right because it was time for another swim, keeping well away from the vegetation just in case.

Oi - was that you?

These beasts can grow to 15 feet long and we were not anxious to make their acquaintance. I distinctly felt something brush against my foot – probably a fish, but I did not stay in the water too long after that.

Worth mentioning that our German friends did not all fancy today’s trip and several stayed in bed. They have complained since the first day about the early starts, the noisy generator and things in general so we thought them a pretty miserable lot until we learned they had been sold this trip as a luxury river cruise and paid through the nose for it, so we were a bit more understanding of their annoyance. The Manatee is wonderful but you would not describe it as luxurious.

We soon set off back down the small river to the Napo where we turned upstream to catch up the Manatee which was now plodding slowly against the current. Lunch was at 1230 then it was siesta time until 1600 – I slept for 2 hours.

Just as we were getting ready to go out the rain started again so there was lots of indecision about who would go and who would stay but it was only a shower so most of us went. The MC took us to an island where we were left to wander to our heart’s content until sunset (S00* 45’ 17.8”, W75* 34’ 29.9”). The Napo creates these islands from time to time and this one was only about 2 years old yet some of the trees were already 3 metres high. The scale of everything in Amazonia is quite overwhellming when you come from the UK. The guide remarked that the river was only 2 miles wide at this point. ONLY 2miles wide? That’s huge to us, especially when you realise it’s only a tributary and its water still has more than a thousand miles to go before reaching the sea.

Desert island at the end of the day

We wandered around on the muddy sand, sinking in rather deeper than was comfortable in a few places so we tried to get in amongst the trees but those areas were impenetrable. We watched the Manatee sail past and slowly disappear upstream on its way to our night stop, wherever that would be; we would catch it up later.

We left the island around 1800 and set off upstream for half an hour until the lights of the Manatee came into view.

We all headed for the bar before dinner at which the chef produced a wonderful cake to celebrate David and Celia’s 41st wedding anniversary. They really did know how to look after us on this boat.

Dave and Celia's 41st anniversary

Tues 10th Nov
We had a lie-in until 0630 this morning – now it’s a luxury cruise. There was immediate excitement when a tapir was spotted at the edge of the river. Some of the locals tried to catch it but as far as we could see the tapir was too smart and was last seen crashing through the bushes at speed with the young men in warm pursuit.

At breakfast a supplementary briefing advised us to bring even more gear with us than usual which brought a mutinous response from some of the group. We set off at 0830 heading for a local school while the Manatee would do its customary thing and catch us up later. Our boat was reasonably fast but we were overtaken by the local “bus”, mostly carrying local children to school resplendent in their bright lifejackets. We passed a few small communities some of which had their own schools and some of these were sponsored by oil companies. The SAGA groups tried to lend support to less fortunate schools and our target today was one such school.

Oil companies sponsor some schools

0930 we arrived at the chosen place (S 00* 35’ 10.4”, W 75* 53’ 02.7”) where there was a community volunteer session going on which involved lots of machetes and an equal amount of football. Don’t ask.




Eventually we went into the school where we received a briefing on the education system. Primary school is mandatory for boys and girls and there is a school in each community. Each school has one teacher, paid by the government, done to repay the state for giving them teacher training. Kids learn in their own language and in Spanish. After primary, secondary is mandatory up to third grade (14 or 15 years old) and there are a few secondary schools in the area but some kids have to go into town. After that further education has to be paid for. Rural children do not get homework because they have too many domestic chores to do when they get home; school is from 0900 to 1300 each weekday. Transport to school is usually by boat and the diesel fuel is paid for by the government but when the money runs out the kids have to walk to school. For some children this can mean more than an hour each way through the bush with bare feet.

We left some gifts with the teacher (books, pens, paper) that we had brought from the UK in anticipation of this visit. Finally we visited the teacher’s house – all very primitive with the only clean water being in a barrel fed from the gutters along the edge of part of the thatched roof. The water had lots of nutritious dead insects floating in it.

We left at 1100 and quickly found the mother-ship which was lurking behind a nearby island. We navigated onwards vaguely north west until lunch at 1230 followed by a chill-out period and then a choice of activities such as a cooking lesson from chef, a napkin folding session with Milton and an island walk. I chose a nap while Bea joined 3 UK ladies, 2 German ladies and 3 German men for the cooking lesson. One of the men was there only because his wife said so and read his book throughout.


The food on the Manatee was wonderful

Recipe: Boil bananas in their skin 15 mins with a touch of Soya sauce to stop them turning black. Remove skins and mash – adding a little of the water in which they were boiled to achieve consistency. Add a beaten egg and form into rounds – use oil to bind. Using a plastic sheet or greaseproof paper, flatten, add cheese and onion filling, roll like a pastry, deep fry and serve hot. Notes: keep the whole thing warm while working to avoid cracks and it’s possible to freeze before frying if desired. Yummy!

Bea and I finished the afternoon with the island walk rather than the napkin folding session and a movie. I forgot the GPS this time so cannot record which island it was, but no matter; it was very similar to the previous day. Our bird watchers did quite well on this island and I took some pictures – not so much of the birds as of the birders.

We got back to the Manatee at 1830, quick shower then up to the bar – pity, no barman yet. He turned up just in time to fill glasses before the evening briefing which foretold of us swimming with more piranhas tomorrow. It was not necessarily reassuring to be told most piranhas are vegetarian and only the red ones eat meat because we already knew red ones lived here. Hardly anyone at all gets bitten, they said.

Dinner and a briefing were followed by a failed shopping session. The ship’s shop was locked and a previous skipper had inadvertently taken the key home with him. Allegedly the key was making it way downstream towards us and if it doesn’t arrive the shop window will have to go; the skipper’s words, not mine.

Weds 11th Nov
Up at 0530 and both groups departed in the MC at 0730 to go and find the mouth of the Panayacu river and thus into the Panacocha reserve. We arrived at the river mouth at the same time as the rain started and we were soon a pretty damp lot. We soon came to a camp beside the river where we rested for half an hour and where we deposited some of the Manatee staff who would spend the morning preparing our lunch. We then all got back into the MC and set off up the river to a particular bend where there was access to a jungle path.

Here the German group disembarked for a jungle walk back to the camp while we continued in the MC to Panacocha Lake (Piranha Lake in English). Halfway there we stopped to watch a three-toed sloth for a while and take some rather misty photos through the curtain of rain. I also got some video.

At the lake it was last-one-in’s-a-cissy and we were swimming around with the wildlife again trying not to think about how close we were to teeth and how far from a surgeon and it was Bea’s turn to feel something brush past her leg.

When we got back to the camp the Germans were already there so we were able to have lunch – an amazing spread considering it had all been cooked on primitive equipment in this dilapidated outpost.

Not a microwave in sight

After lunch the two groups reversed the morning roles; they went to the lake and we walked through the forest. The rain was still quite heavy and we got rather wet despite wearing heavy ponchos but hey, it’s the rainforest, and Raoul the guide showed us lots of interesting stuff about the trees, plants and insects. A magical walk.

Deep in the rainforest - Biodiversity Central

Back at the camp we packed up and got back in the MC for our return trip down to the main river and we rejoined the Manatee at 1800. We spent an hour drying out and then it was off to the bar before dinner. My notes say it was hilarious but I don’t remember a thing about it but my notes also say the wine was on the house that night so there might be a connection.

Checklist and briefings followed and we went to bed slightly tiddly at 2115.

Thurs 12th Nov
Today we were off again at 0715 heading for two clay licks which are regularly visited by parrots, macaws and other wildlife. There was not much to see at the first one (S 00* 31’ 27.5”, W 76* 22’ 18.0”) so it was back to the canoe and off to another one. On the way we stopped in mid-river opposite where some green parrots had found an unofficial lick.

Green parrots

On the way to the second proper lick we paused at a village where there was a shop selling locally made things so we bought a balsawood canoe; not the brightest of decisions given the slings and arrows of airport baggage systems but we actually got away with it (almost) unscathed.

Anyway, it was 1030 and we were a bit early for the actual performance so some bird watching went on until it was time to follow the slippery concrete path for 15 minutes over hill and dale to a hide which faced a steep muddy cliffy with a tunnel at its foot out of which flowed a little stream. To kill time Dave and I slipped back a short distance along the path to another stream where we fed the fish with a bread roll Dave had smuggled out of breakfast.

Red macaws

At last some macaws showed up and gradually plucked up enough courage to descend through the trees to the foot of the cliff to get their daily fix of minerals. The German group had already lost interest and had gone back to the canoe and been taken all the way back to the Manatee while we were still at the hide.

The river is the main road

We got back to the Manatee at 1300 just as the Germans were finishing their lunch so we sat down to ours and then Bea and I started packing for our departure next day.

We set off again in the MC at 1545 for the final excursion of the trip which was to Limoncocha (Lemon Lake) where we would enjoy a night cruise.   This involved catching a bus for a short drive to the lake and then embarking in a dilapidated narrow wooden canoe with equally dilapidated seats and a local chap in the back with a sickly-sounding outboard engine.


The German group had a similar craft to themselves. We set off along the lakeside at 1640 in daylight and spotted quite a lot of birds. We came across some local people out fishing with nets and with rod and line; one family had caught a red piranha which they let us examine.


Red piranha

We then ventured across the lake where some red howler monkeys were settling down for the night in the top of a tree.

Red howlers

It was now getting quite dark and as we headed towards the far end of the lake we began to notice the glow worms at the foot of the stems of vegetation all along the banks, defining the edges like cats eyes. In the bushes away from the water's edge fire flies performed their own light show.


Quite soon we met our first caiman, lying quietly in the plant beds. We were told these animals are not a problem because although they can grow to fifteen feet long they usually avoid human beings, so we took some flash photos and left the beast in peace. By now Milton was using a powerful torch to pick out bats of various sorts including a large bat that catches fish. Ian, our UK expert, and Milton did not always agree on which bats they were but it hardly mattered, it was just marvellous being there. The torch attracted dense clouds of insects which it was hard not to breath in and it is no wonder insect eaters do so well here.

At about this point Milton switched his torch off and called for the outboard to be silenced so that we could properly experience night time on the lake. It was amazing.

Then it got REALLY amazing as the canoe bumped into something and all hell broke loose. Exactly what happened could not be agreed, even by those closest to the action, and Bea and I were too far back down the canoe to be clear but it was something like this: our canoe collided with a caiman which took exception to this act of aggression and tried to climb into the canoe, jaws snapping. It either fell back into the water or was repelled by a guide brandishing his rucksack and it then swam under the canoe and had a go at the other side. Having made its point it swam away.

It is something of a miracle that this narrow craft did not capsize as people understandably shied away from the caiman, first one way and then the other. The boatman quickly got the engine going again and we left the scene smartly with cries of “Vamoose” from Milton, as if the boatman needed any urging.

Later the boatman expressed the view it must have been a male caiman exerting its territorial rights but someone else thought it could equally be a female with young or eggs nearby. Either way the incident caused those of us who had been swimming in the other lakes to reflect.

We reversed our outward journey back to the Napo and along in the MC to the Manatee where we settled our bar bills and watched a photo show of our week’s adventure, put together by Milton. Bed at 2300, much later than usual; it had been a really long day.

Fri 13th Nov
We said our good byes to the Manatee and crew at 0715 and were whisked at high speed towards Coca in a luxurious, borrowed, super-fast MC and we arrived there so quickly the bus that would take us to the airport had not arrived.

Borrowed Posh canoe

We killed time taking photos of the local monkeys before the bus took us to Coca town where our 1030 flight was delayed by half an hour, going on 55 minutes.

Monkeys at Coca

A pleasant flight over the Andes but there was too much cloud about to get good views of the volcanoes.

Quito from the air

At Quito we went straight to the Colon Hilton, dumped our gear and then went out for a bite of lunch in a nearby cafe.

At 1445 we all went by bus to a local Natural History Museum where the curator gave us the full tour, once the lights came back on.

Ecuador’s power comes mostly from hydro electric schemes and there has been so little rain that energy has to be conserved. This means that each sector of Quito is subject to a daily series of planned power cuts.

Back at the Hilton we had a couple of hours to kill before dinner, then it was checklists and up to bed by 2100.

Sat 14th Nov
Up early again and off for a city tour, mostly in the old city but first stop was at Quito’s famous virgin. Somebody asked, “What, the only one?” and we dutifully laughed. It’s a huge aluminium statue looking down on the sprawling city from its viewpoint on a hill. Marco gave us a potted history of Quito, mostly to do with the arrival of the Spanish and the Catholic Church.

The virgin ......................and her view of Quito old town

Quito is surrounded by volcanoes, some of them still active and minor quakes happen every day. Every few years one of the craters vents steam or ash but mostly there is no lava. If there was lava it would probably not threaten the city because the lowest points of the main crater rims face away from the city, however lava is the least of their worries. If any of the local volcanoes were to have a major eruption and produced a cloud of burning gas there would be big trouble. Such clouds burn at around 1200 degs centigrade and travel at 500 mph so within minutes Quito city and its 2 million inhabitants would be history. Quito is truly a city living on the edge.

We dropped in on the President

From the viewpoint the bus took us down to the old city where a series of squares containing churches and official buildings dominated the scene. Narrow streets full of shops connected the squares and being down here among the people we began to notice the large number of police and soldiers on the streets, many of them armed. Marco explained what the different uniforms meant and said most of the police were there to control and limit the street traders. It didn’t quite ring true but he’s the guide. We visited a few churches and the president’s house and Marco was in full flow with names and dates and useful facts – too much to relate here, even if I could remember it all.

Back in the town centre we dispersed, each to find somewhere for lunch. Bea and I went to Mickey’s, which had been recommended to us, then at 1400 most of us went with Ian on an unofficial excursion on a cable car up one of the local volcanoes. We grabbed three taxis and headed for the Telerefico – $4 per taxi. Some of us got senior citizen discounts of 50 per cent at the cable car on the full adult express price of $8 for non-Ecuadorians. There were quite long queues but if you had an express ticket you had to wait about 20 minutes for a cabin. Each car took 6 people and rose very steeply from 9,500 to 13,500 feet at the top station.  (S 00* 11’ 12.4”, W78* 32’ 14.2”).

The views at the top were breathtaking in every sense – the air was a bit thin. Some of our party were content to sit in a cafe at the top while six of us went for a birding walk with Ian. One only made it a couple of hundred yards before turning back and another went back soon after.

A tempting peak

The ridge along which we started was very tempting and there was a beautiful summit a few miles distant but all thoughts of being stupid were banished when the clouds rolled in and the rain started. We found some fox droppings and Ian located a few of the local birds. He even used his mp3 player to try to call in a particular favourite but without luck. By this time I had my waterproof jacket on and the folding umbrella erected, but took it down again when the thunder and lightning began. Thankfully the storm was busy venting most of its fury on the next hill in the range so I don’t suppose we were in too much danger. Our route had caused us to lose height and the altitude took its toll when the time came to climb back uphill so some of us were puffing and panting by the time we regained the main ridge where we found a pile of what looked similar to pine marten dung. Ian thought it could be Tayra but we weren’t sure if they occurred this high up. Worth checking on.  (I did and found a few references online to tayras high in the Andes).

We joined the rest of the group in the cafe and then took the cable car down where we walked down to a lower car park and snagged enough taxis to get us back to the Hilton.

After changing we joined the others in the bar before each pair going its own way to find food. Our first choice restaurant was closed, as was the second choice so it was either wimp out and go to MacDonalds or take a chance on a very small place next to Mickey’s. We took a chance.

Nobody spoke English and we don’t speak Spanish but there were pictures on the wall so we pointed and ordered and paid and sat down, not quite sure what was going to arrive. Quite soon two metal dishes arrived, each containing two potatoes in sauce and there were some small pots of spicy stuff to go with them. We weren’t quite sure what to do; wait for a plate of proper food or eat these in the meantime, or was this actually all we had ordered? We ate the potatoes and waited hopefully and sure enough two plates arrived full of barbequed beef, chicken and sausage plus more potatoes and banana. A splendid meal.

Before we’d finished eating there was a loud crash as the shutters came down; they were closing. We finished up quickly and left. The whole thing only cost $5.30. We were back in the hotel by 2000, ready for an early night.

Sun 15 Nov
After a poor night’s sleep (altitude?) we were up and away by 0530 for a visit to the cloud forest and a whole different range of birds and animals. We used a much smaller bus for this excursion and we were soon to see why. It took 2 hours to travel the steep winding road to Bella Vista lodge which would have been totally inaccessible to a larger vehicle (S 00* 00’ 57.9”, W 78* 40’ 51.6”). After a rest we set out on a 3.5 hour walk along rough forest roads, zig-zagging up and across steep forest slopes. It was cold to start with but after an hour we took off our jumpers as the sun rose high enough to look down through the trees on us. Lots and lots of new birds were found by the birders because the habitat is so different from the lowland rainforest of the previous week.

There are spectacled bears out there somewhere

We asked about mammals and were told there are no monkeys here but the spectacled bear roams these hills. Unfortunately there was virtually no chance of seeing one because even most of the local guides who have lived here all their lives have never seen one.

Weird plants in the cloud forest

Back at the Bella Vista, before lunch, we had some drinks and then another short walk and I took some photos of humming birds. After lunch there was another walk but I stayed behind to try to improve on the humming bird photos, but failing light defeated my cunning plan.

Humming birds at Bella Vista

Bea really enjoyed the walk which had three guides – our Ian and Marco plus the local guide. Apparently the local guide was a waste of rations and when he tried to take the group down a tiny blinkered path where there was no chance of seeing anything he was out-voted by our chaps. SAGA rules.

We left at 1600 for the two hour ride back to Quito, the first half hour of which was back down the steep, winding tracks of the inward journey with many a hairpin turn. It was best not to look down as our bus skirted the edge of the precipices. At last we reached the proper tarmac road and headed back to Quito. On the way we stopped at a monument that was supposed to mark the equator. Pity they built it in slightly the wrong place, but we shouldn’t be too critical because that spot was calculated three hundred years ago so it’s a miracle they got it as close as they did. A new monument has now been built on the exact line.

Back at the Hilton we assembled for the last supper and final checklist session before heading up to finish packing and into bed for 2130.

Mon 16th Nov
We had most of the day to ourselves so we went to the market to shop.


Bea bought two tee shirts and I got a hat and then we went for lunch in a pizza place. It turned out to be a magnet for some of life’s flotsam but the pizza and pepsi was fine and only cost us $1.50 each.

On the way back to the hotel I remarked again on the large number of armed police and soldiers on the streets in broad daylight. It spoke to me of an underlying problem with street crime. Bea thought it was probably no worse than any other large city including those in the UK and the police were probably there to protect the banks and casinos, but I was not convinced.

Later we heard that one of our ladies had been robbed of her camera on the street. Furthermore, when she and her husband went to report it at the police station there were other people there who had been attacked with knives and pieces of broken glass and robbed of everything they had with them. Quito is not a nice place.

We got to the airport in plenty of time to clear passport control and pay our exit tax. We had actually already paid it to SAGA without realising it and Marco had to give us each back the right cash to pay in person at the desk – weird.

I then got called out by customs for a random bag check. It was actually Bea’s bag they had chosen, but no matter. Quite a high percentage of luggage was checked and we were told it had to do with drugs. Not too surprising considering Ecuador has a border with Colombia. As I left the area to go back to the lounge one of several Labradors was released to sniff a pile of cases. At least the guards all spoke English. We have been surprised that in a country where the US dollar is the currency so few people speak English, even in shops and restaurants.

The first leg of the journey was to Guayaquil, further south. Quito’s runway is not long enough for a large plane fully loaded with people and fuel to take off so it has to fly to Guayaquil first, refuel and tackle the Atlantic from there. We all had to get off with our hand luggage while they pumped fuel and eventually we took off again about 15 minutes later than scheduled. This could make catching the connecting flight at Madrid a little tight and I was already not convinced our luggage would make it onto the right plane, having seen the chaos in the luggage bays in Quito airport.

I slept remarkably well and I need not have worried. Our connections both in Madrid and London worked out quite well and our bags arrived with only a slight chip out of the bow of our balsawood canoe.

A wonderful, wonderful trip.    We thought the activities were pitched at about the right level for a group such as ours and we were provided with a marvellous opportunity to see and experience a remote rainforest and its inhabitants at close quarters.  The food and accommodation aboard the Manatee were of a remarkably high standard considering the circumstances and the only real down-side was the price of drinks in the bar.