As a little girl growing up in the Central Valley of California, I was lucky enough to have easy access to both mountains and beaches. Every year, my family would usually take two vacations: one to the beaches of Sea Ranch, and another to a national park in the Sierra Nevadas. While I thoroughly enjoyed our family trips hiking along the rugged Northern California beach cliffs and posting up on sandy beaches, I’ve long-identified as more of a mountain girl. My sister loves surfing, swimming, and the sunshine of the beach. That’s not to say that I don’t also enjoy beaches, but I feel more at home in the mountains. The smell of pine needles, the smooth surface of frigid lakes formed by snow melt, the rushing of waterfalls plummeting off granite cliffs, and the tranquility of mountain solitude have always had a special appeal for me. I take after my dad in that way.
These days, I get to live in the mountains. Quito is, at its core, Andean. The weather is generally cool and often overcast. I look out my window and see Volcán Cotopaxi. Several other peaks are visible on clearer days. The city itself is hilly. I am thrilled to be living among the majesty of the mountain range. But Quito is still a city. I didn’t realize how much I needed to get away for a bit until I left this past weekend for the jungle, my first three-day weekend since arriving a little over three weeks ago.
Anyhow, I wouldn’t say I’m no longer a mountain girl at heart. But some competition developed after my first excursion into the jungle two years ago. Though California had afforded me opportunities to visit and experience some incredible and diverse environments, one thing it did not have was jungle. So in 2013, when my sister and I took a trip to South America, I got my first real jungle experience in the northeastern corner of Colombia. We took a four-day jungle trek to Ciudad Perdida, the ruins of the indigenous Tayuna civilization from hundreds of years ago. I had no idea what to expect except vague notions of thick trees and sweltering humidity.
What I discovered was a marvelous environment that seemed right out of the magical realism seen in the books of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If I had to describe the jungle in two words, they would be density and intensity. I think this intensity is part of what made me fall in love with the jungle back during that first visit. The amount of life in the jungle is incomparable to anywhere else I’ve ever been. There are insects chirping and birds cawing at all hours of the day and night. The earth is crowded with plants clamoring over one and other for sunlight, soil, and space. A tree can die one day and be almost completely obscured by new life within only a few weeks. In no place does there exist more shades of green. Paths through the jungle floor appear to be constantly on the verge of being consumed by the surrounding plants and organisms. There isn’t a dry patch, either. Everything is moist–rivers and streams criss-crossing each other, rain falling daily, and humidity that never ceases make for a state of constant dampness that forms the foundations of the prolific life that inhabits the jungle. Simply put, the dynamism of the jungle is enchanting in a way that is hard to explain.
So when I had my first short break from WorldTeach orientation this past weekend, I jumped at the chance to visit the jungle again: this time, the Ecuadorian jungle. On Friday morning bright and early, a few other volunteers and I made the trek to the bus station and boarded a bus bound for the oriente. The bus ride itself was picturesque, winding down through the mountains and into the lowlands in the east. As we descended from the Andes the changes in geography happened slowly, and then all at once. The arid, cool mountainous land gave way to greener hills, waterfalls, and rain.
Though only about 5 hours away from Quito, Tena could not have been more different from Quito. Situated on the edge of the Ecuadorian Amazon, Tena is a small town shrouded in low-lying clouds, framed by mountains covered in greenery and jungle mist. Strolling through town, you are likely to see colorful hammocks laced between the trees and plants with comically large leaves and vibrant pink blossoms. The air is thick and humid but earthy, a welcome break from the ever-present pollution of Quito. Not only is the geography distinct, but the people and feel of Tena are quite different as well. Tena feels much safer. The people, like the climate, are warmer. While walking down the street on Friday, several strangers greeted me. The atmosphere is more relaxed, with people walking slowly and dressed casually. The indigenous presence is strong here. I heard the language kichwa for the first time while in Tena. Many locals speak kichwa as their first language, and when they speak English it sounds quite distinct from how native Spanish speakers pronounce English words.
The town itself is charming, but the real treasure is what awaits just outside its borders. The outdoor adventures to be had in the surrounding areas are unreal. While in Tena and its surroundings, I got to….
- be lulled to sleep by a cacophonous jungle rain and thunder storm;
- visit a sanctuary that was home to jungle creatures such as capuchin monkeys, caimanes, toucans, and tapirs;
- white-water raft down and swim in the Jatunyacu River;
- hike to a waterfall in the rain;
- and overall fully appreciate the unbelievable beauty of the Ecuadorian jungle.
Here is a sneak peak of our weekend (turn on your volume, it has audio!):**
There is an element of magic in the jungle. If Tena is just the edge of the Amazon, I can only begin to imagine what awaits beyond the outskirts. I can’t wait to go even further.
**Special shout-out to my parents for buying me this GoPro and making all this footage possible. Love you guys!