In the course of a single day, Lee drove most of Ecuador. At the start, we head south along the river, past ramshackle zip lines, empty barbecue restaurants, and rushing waterfalls. We mean to stop but never do.
Like Kurtz, we descend into the jungle, the heart of darkness. Actually, it is quite sunny. As California’s Sierra Mountains yield to the fertile Central Valley, the Andes drop into the humid Amazon. We cut through Puyo, a recently built-up oil town. Ecuador has just begun plumbing the Oriente, the eastern jungle part of the country. We follow a boondoggle to a non-existent botanical museum south of town.
Empty-handed, we retrace our steps back into Puyo to park at a fancy tourist restaurant for lunch. We have yet to eat exceptionally creatively as this Lonely Planet guide tends to recommend better restaurants that replay standard continental fare, like steaks and spaghetti, instead of the exotic. Lee and I each pull down tilapia in a ginger sauce. Ecuador is mad for pizza.
An older American hippie ethnologist and his shaman wife have next to the restaurant reclaimed 15 hectares of sugar cane fields (formerly fermented into local alcohol) and returned the fields back into jungle. The institute offers guided tours of the land. Lee and I are paired with a great Zimbabwean (!) high school student who is learning Spanish on a year-long exchange. He gives a kick-ass tour of jungle plants like canela and ayahuasca, takes us into a traditional thatched Shaar house to explain head shrinking. We follow columns of leaf-cutter ants and listen to tropical birds, but don’t see any. I’m grateful for the tour, because otherwise this part of the Amazon looks like an undifferentiated mass of trees and shrubs.
There are two routes from Puyo back to Quito, either retrace the major highway back through Banõs or loop new, north through the Amazon and back west through a Andean pass. We take the new path on a six-hour drive into what is technically called “way the fuck out there.” The scenery is stunning. I’m so grateful for Lee’s expert driving.
The sun sets at 6pm and full darkness invades by 6:30pm. We tackle most of the mountain driving before blackout. The road is mostly good. Lee zooms around laden trucks.
Our long night begins: find dinner at a Quito pizza place named Chester’s, check into our airport hotel, sleep a couple hours, fill the car’s gas tank with gas (just $7.50) and pick up a beleaguered Ray ad Adriene from the airport. I hate these long nights of travel.