Our van from Baños picked us up from our hostel around 7 pm and took several hours to get to our destination in the jungle, Puyo Pongo. Technically, according to our hostel host, Puyo Pongo is secondary rainforest (compared to primary forest which is defined as untouched, and unaffected by humans), but it was pretty darn jungly as far as we were concerned. We arrived pretty late but were happy to find electricity and WiFi in our bunkhouse for the weekend. We enjoyed a typical dinner served by the staff including juice and some delicious homemade soup.
In the morning a couple from Belgium arrived to joint our tour group for the weekend. After breakfast we hopped into the back of a pickup truck to make a trip down the road and visit a local indigenous community. It was a really neat experience where we first shared some authentic chicha (a corned based alcoholic beverage) and watched some of the community members participate in a typical dance. Next we all tried our luck with the 10 ft blow gun, aiming darts at a wooden target. Of the four of us, Elizabeth was best, and fortunately none of us missed.
Next we all had our faces painted by some of the members of the tribe, each of us with different patterns. They used a local seed pod filled with small red seeds for the face painting. A small twig was stuck down into the pod to smash the seeds, producing a bright red ink (that, as it turns out, does indeed stain clothing).
With our faces painted the community members then brought out some of their pets, including a red macaw, boa constrictor, and several types of monkeys. We each had a chance to hold several of the animals and (as seen above) the small monkey loved to ride on your shoulder.
We completed our visit to the community with a quick walk around the area and then headed to the river to catch a canoe ride home. The canoe was carved from a single tree trunk and was every bit of 30 feet long. Our driver for the day served as our captain and navigated what was a pretty choppy river (due to recent rain). After we were safely back on the river bank, we all helped load the canoe back onto the pickup truck, and then rode in the back of the truck (some of us still in the canoe) back to our home for the weekend.
After a break for lunch we headed back out into the jungle with our guide. Donning big rubber boots (see photo of me above) we trudged through the forest on our way to a lookout point. The lookout point was part of a small developed tourist stop of sorts which included a small area to sit and eat, a few caves carved out of the hillside, and a structure at the top of the hill with a dozen or so hammocks to enjoy the view. As for the caves, we quickly navigated our way through them but spent at least enough time for a bat to fly up my shorts. Not cool. At the top of the path the lookout point was awesome. We enjoyed a few cold beers and relaxed in the afternoon sun.
After a while we finished our beers and headed back down the hillside to continue our day. Our guide led us back into the forest to an area known to see caiman (family to the crocodile). Our guide was familiar with the area and even jumped into a pond and waded waist-deep in search of the large turtle that lived in there, but to no avail.
To finish our day we went fishing for huanchichi (spelling may not be correct) which were piranha-like fish with super sharp teeth, with fishing line tied to the end of a stick and raw chicken. I’m not sure if any of us really mastered the technique. By the time it was dark out, our group secured 3 fish (2 caught by our guide and 1 by one of the Belgians) which we brought home and ate for dinner. The fish were shaped more like a trout and tasted quite good, which was a nice conclusion to our day.
The next morning we again hopped into the back of the pickup truck and ventured into the jungle for a hike to two different waterfalls. Along the way our guide showed us different types of plants and how the local people used them. He told us about and then subjected us to some strange indigenous plant medicine, including some rather painful pricks from a small flower followed by the application of a paste to ease the stinging of said pricks. We all agreed at the end that maybe we should have passed on that part, but no harm came to us and we survived. On a better note, our guide also fashioned some new glasses for Elizabeth which complimented her headband quite nicely.
Our first stop on the hike was a really cool hidden waterfall, tucked away in the jungle and almost impossible to find without a guide. It was only about 15-20 feet tall and included a small pool suitable for swimming. Despite the freezing temperatures, we figured we had hiked here for the waterfall specifically, so we all jumped in and enjoyed the frigid waters for a bit.
From there we headed to the second and final waterfall of our hike. This one was much larger and even colder somehow, but we jumped in there for a bit as well. Unfortunately the Belgian girl who was with us on the trip fell and hit her tailbone pretty good, so we took it easy on the way back.
Once we made it back to our bunkhouse we had whole fish (red snapper) for lunch which was great. It was cooked in a banana leaf which gave it a steamed quality (as opposed to fried, which most fish had been for us up to that point) which was a nice change of flavor and texture.
Following lunch we walked a short ways down the road to a local cacao shop where you can try organic chocolate and also make your own. We all sampled fresh cacao beans, which have a fruit pulp around them that must be chewed off. From there, the de-fruited beans are dried in the sun for a week before they are roasted, peeled, ground up, and eventually made into chocolate. After learning about the process we were able to walk through each step and make our own 100% cacao chocolate.
The chocolate produced is literally 100% dark chocolate, with no sugar or anything else added. The beans smell incredible as they are roasting, and the chocolate smells great as it’s being ground, but the taste is quite bitter, like 100% baking chocolate. The ground up paste is eventually spread out on a banana leaf and placed in the freezer to chill. During the chilling period we enjoyed some pan de yuca and some local tea, and even tried some of their local jungle whiskey (which must have had a dozen different types of herbs and botanicals in it) which was great. After finishing up our snack the host returned to the freezer to get our giant chocolate bar and we headed back home for our last night in the jungle.
The next morning after breakfast we packed up our stuff and jumped back in the van to leave the jungle and head to our next new city, Latacunga!