Bienviendos a la Selva (Tena, EC)

Tena is a small city that skirts the Amazon region in Ecuador. For $6 per person, it took three hours by bus to get to Tena from Baños. When we arrived at the terminal we walked through town to Hostel Austria which was moderately priced at $23 and did not include AC.  It was however very clean and convienently located.

Initially, we were underwhelmed with Tena. We are walking around town at 3:00 pm and nothing was open. The one thing we wanted to do was go on a hike in the jungle, but every tour shop we found was closed. We were so disappointed we decided we were going to leave the next day. Trying to find something to do shouldn’t be this hard. That night Tim went out to get something to eat (my stomach was still not 100%) and he found a tour company that was open! Long story short we ended up getting what we wanted – a trip into the Amazon jungle.

The tour cost $55 each and lasted from 9 am to 4:30 pm. No one else signed up so Tim and I got a private tour! The trip started outside of Misahualli where our guide peacefully paddled us in a handmade canoe through a small canal to our hiking spot. We saw a couple of spider monkeys and beautiful birds.

We donned our boots and hit the trail. Our guide, Javier, showed us different plants including the plant of which they make Panama hats. He made us headbands out of it. He also used a flower bud to make me fake nails which helped me channel my inner tiger. We found a termite nest, Javier picked at it to make them come out of their nest and then put my hand on it so they crawled on me. If you rub your hands together and smash them they release a menthol scent that can be used as a natural bug repellant.

We returned to Misahualli for lunch and had a traditional fish dinner wrapped in banana leaves and yuca, which is like a potato. After lunch we walked to the river and saw a troop of monkeys. It was entertaining to watch them easily swing from the tree branches, curiously gazing down at us.

Monkey eating a banana

We then caught a bus to a go on a waterfall hike. Our guide allowed a couple other travelers to follow us to the waterfall so they wouldn’t get lost. It was a hot, slippery hike but we were well rewarded in the end with a glorious swim in the waterfall.

After the trip Javier took us out for celebratory drinks where we met Abby. Abby is a local that told us about a white water rafting festival going on that weekend called Jondachi Fest, named after the Jondachi River. She said that there was a registration party that night and invited us to come, at least for the free pizza. Needless to say we showed up and registered for the overnight rafting trip for Saturday. Abby said they were looking for volunteers to help out with the race on Friday so Tim and I volunteered.

We got up early the next day which started with free breakfast. We rode with Abby to the race finish line where we carried boxes of empanadas down a steep, slippery trail (did I mention that all the trails in Tena are slippery??) It was physically very hard for me and also mentally challenging as I had to keep smelling the delicious empanadas without getting to eat any. After the race we hiked back up the steep trail and got a free lunch. (Volunteering is awesome!)

The next day was the overnight kayaking/rafting trip. The class of the rapids ranged from 3 to 4+. The trip was only $55 a person and included our own private tent, lunch, dinner and breakfast the next day.  We camped at Playa Selva resort. It is in a remote location that you either hike to or arrive by the river. The scenery was absolutely beautiful the entire trip. We learned that the purpose of Jondachi Fest is fighting the government from damming the river. It would be sad if they dammed it because it is quite beautiful and provides so much life to the forest.

All in all our trip to Tena was a success thanks to Jondachi Fest. We saw a side of the Amazon we never would have seen before and are so thankful for how everything played out with running into Abby and having the opportunity to volunteer.

The taxis drove down to the take out
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BIG BEND

Big Bend National Park, Texas

After passing through the entry gate at Persimmon Gap, I felt as though I was driving through a National Geographic magazine. Picture purple, yellow and white wildflowers lining a long paved road, a desert landscape with various cacti in bloom and hazy, bronze mountains on the horizon. Such a beautiful setting in a harsh, unforgiving land.

With our 31 foot fifth wheel and 4 pound Chihuahua, our choices for camping were limited. Our only option was to stay in the Rio Grande Village campground. Regular camping is only $14 a night and with our America the Beautiful Pass admission was free (normally $20). All the sites are spacious, some are in direct sun, some have all shade. We chose a spot with a little of both since we needed our solar panels to get some sun. There are public restrooms but no showers. If you want to shower you can pay for one at the village store, $1.50/3 minutes. There are sites available with electric and water hookups but they were all taken. These sites are more costly at $33 a night and packed tightly together in a parking lot. There is another campground in the Chisos basin but you can’t go there with a trailer greater than 24 feet. For those without RV’s and not into “roughing it”, there is a lodge at the Chisos basin. There are a ton of sites for back country primitive camping as well which would have been awesome, but unfortunately we couldn’t do it since National Parks don’t allow dogs outside of the developed campgrounds. There are a couple gas/diesel stations throughout park, so no need to worry about running out of fuel if you want to see the entire 880,000 acres of the park.

The first day we planned to kayak the Rio Grande through the Santa Elena canyon. The renowned canyon is one of the highlights of the park and visited by many. The ranger suggested we put in at the Santa Elena boat ramp and kayak up river to the canyon and float back. I’m starting to see a trend here in Texas. Do Texans never kayak or simply not understand the logistics? It was our second suggestion to “just paddle upriver and float.” If the water is too low you simply cannot do it! Nevertheless, we didn’t give up like at South Llano, we were too determined to see and kayak through the canyon We had to portage the kayak at least 7 times. It was hard work but it was worth it in the end. Our point of view from the kayak was spectacular. The Rio Grande River, from what we saw, is very calm, narrow and shallow. Tim and I joked that it should be renamed the Rio Grande Creek. In the canyon, the only sounds are from little songbirds chirping and flying to and from their nests on either side the towering canyon. With the help of the current, only two portages were required on the way back.

The second day, we hiked to Emory Peak, the highest peak in the park at 7,825 feet. A 10.6 mile hike round trip from the basin with a 2,000 feet elevation gain. It was our first day hike in the desert. We each carried 3 liters of water and lunch. We passed a few hikers that were hiking to their primitive camp, carrying with them gallons of water for dry camping. Water is scare here so you have to carry a gallon a day for primitive camping. Nearly every plant has thorns, so you have to always be careful about brushing up against something. Reaching the peak was anti-climatic. I was expecting a plateau with a 360 degree view of the park. Yet after a 30 yard scramble to the peak, there was no where to comfortably hang out and have lunch. On our descent we saw a deer, which Tim thought was a donkey at first because they are more grayish toned here than brown. We also saw a small flock of Western Scrub Jays. We finished in only five hours. What’s the best way to end the day after a strenuous hike? A soak in a natural hot spring! FDR believed them to be healing. I agree, or perhaps it was the extra strong white Russian I had prepared for myself….it was pretty amazing. The experience was special for us since it was both of our first times in a HOT spring. The temperature stays at 105 degrees Fahrenheit, unlike the cooler Springs in Florida that stay at 72 degrees year round.

South Llano was awesome, but Big Bend definitely surpassed my expectations. I purposely did not use the internet to get a sneak peek of Big Bend because I wanted the first time I saw it to be through my own eyes. I literally couldn’t stop taking pictures because I saw beauty every where I looked. The mountains change color throughout that day. We were told by many locals that we were lucky. Because of the extra rain the area had received earlier in the year, the wildflowers and cacti were thriving more than usual. All in all, our stay at Big Bend was truly an unforgettable experience.

Five Star Scale Rating
Scenery – *****
Campground – ***
Campsite – ***
Recreation – *****

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