Thanks to our not-not canceled flight on American Airlines, we arrived in Quito a bit later than planned. Or a bit earlier, depending on your point of view. Instead of a late-night arrival the prior evening, our plane touched down in Quito at 4am the next morning. We grabbed a nap at our hotel (shortest stay in the hospitality industry this side of a whorehouse). Then we dragged our butts back to the airport to begin the first leg of our journey: four nights aboard a riverboat in the Amazon rainforest.
But before we could get to the boat, we had to clear another aviation hurdle.
That’s because TAME, one of South America’s largest airlines (pronounced Tah-may) decided to take a page from American’s customer service manual. Immediately after we boarded our morning flight from Quito to Coca, the Captain (not an Admiral) made an unexpected announcement. First in Spanish, then in English, he proceeded to explain that the Coca airport was closed due to extreme weather, and that our flight would be delayed for an unspecified period of time. When I say the Captain made this announcement immediately after we boarded, I mean less than a minute after they closed the main door.
Really, TAME? Surely your operational peeps were aware of the conditions in Coca before the boarding process even began. Would it have been too nice of you to let the 100 or so passengers (also known as your customers) hang out at the gate during the delay? You know, instead of cramming us all onto a little commuter jet that you knew had zero chance of taking off anytime soon?
Evidently that would indeed have been too nice. Like money and wisdom, compassion seems to be another attribute that airlines often run low on. So we sat on the plane, parked at the gate, going absolutely nowhere for over an hour. And if you’ve ever been in a situation where the phrase “no translation needed” applied perfectly, well, after that hour we had one of those moments. The Captain finally made another announcement, again in Spanish at first, but we didn’t need to wait for the English version to figure out what he was saying. The groans and sighs of the other passengers were a pretty strong clue. And when they all unbuckled their seat belts, jumped up from their seats and started gathering their belongings, well, that was all the translation we needed.
In so many other words, grab your shit and get the fuck off the plane.
Because your flight has been canceled. Again.
Back at the gate, the first thing I did was get out my cell phone to call American Airlines. I figured they would be able to tell me if the flight was really canceled or not, because you know, that’s something they seem to be really good at.
Sorry. Sometimes sarcasm can be an ugly thing.
Fortunately, the TAME gate personnel were able to rebook us on a later flight to Coca, on a larger plane that would accommodate all the displaced passengers as well as the people who were already ticketed. And via a quick email exchange with the cruise operator, we learned that our late arrival in Coca would not jeopardize our rendezvous with the riverboat.
All in all I’d say we got pretty lucky, considering that two of our first three flights on this trip were canceled, and we managed to emerge relatively unscathed on the other side of all that drama.
As we soon learned, we were never in danger of having the boat leave without us anyway. It turns out George and I were the only two passengers on the sailing. Yup. A luxury riverboat with 18 suites that accommodate 36 passengers, but for the next four nights it was going to be just us and the crew.
“I’ll bet you didn’t know you were chartering the whole boat!” the Captain (also not an Admiral) joked with us as we boarded.
“As long as we’re not paying for the whole boat,” I joked back.
The reason we had the boat to ourselves was because of a last-minute cancellation involving a larger group of passengers. But even if they had showed up, the boat would not have been full. That’s because February is the low season for tourism in the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon rainforest. The handful of boats and lodges that operate in the region are rarely full this time of year. And that’s because it’s also the dry season. What’s wrong with the dry season, you ask? Nothing, as far as George and I are concerned. Though many of our trips involve exploration, all of our trips are vacations too. Give us sunshine and blue skies over rain any day. Apparently hardcore naturalists, who simply must get a glimpse of all 27 varieties of the speckled-belly sapsucker before they die, come during the rainy season, when the animal life is more active. For us, though, the combination of better weather, fewer tourists and better prices was pretty much a no-brainer.
Of course it still rained a little – it’s a rainforest, after all – but we never needed our umbrellas or ponchos. And we managed to see plenty of wildlife anyway, including the most sought-after creatures in the region. We saw red howler monkeys nesting in trees. We watched pink dolphins surface and dive in the river. We tracked mating macaws from treetop to treetop, with their vibrant blue and yellow plumage. We saw green parrots gathered by the hundreds at a community salt lick. We watched the hypnotic movements of an orange viper lazing on a log. We tried in vain to photograph the bright iridescence of the fluttering blue morpha butterfly, whose shades of indigo appear so electric you think the thing must be equipped with LED lighting.
The god of the Amazon may or may not be gay, but s/he sure does like some splashes of color around the place.
George also thought he saw an anaconda pop its head out of the water near where our canoe was docked one afternoon. But our guide didn’t see it so we couldn’t be sure. That’s probably just as well. You don’t want to find yourself too up close and personal with an anaconda. Such encounters generally do not end well. Unless you’re the anaconda.
The best part was that our time aboard the riverboat amounted to an extended private tour. Every activity was tailored to our personal preferences. We had the undivided attention of our naturalist guide – an extremely knowledgeable indigenous dude who seemed able to mind-meld with the Amazon wildlife. He and the other 15 crew members were available at our every beck and call. Because again, you see, THERE WERE NO OTHER PASSENGERS ON THE ENTIRE BOAT. We were like billionaires aboard a private yacht.
“Best ratio of crew to passengers in the industry!” the Captain joked.
The food on board was stellar too. Each day we were presented with different selections from a wide range of Ecuadorian cuisine. Among our favorites were fresh-caught pacu fish (a close cousin of piranha), roasted pork with passion fruit sauce, spicy mashed plantains, spinach and yucca soup, and a ceviche made with fresh hearts of palm. The gourmet Ecuadorian chocolates were also sinfully good (cacao is one the country’s major crops).
As in Germany, and India before that, green vegetables were mostly absent from our dinner plates. But we think it would be silly to avoid big chunks of the world just because the cuisine doesn’t conform to our usual standards. For us, travel is all about experiencing local life. Besides, we brought along plenty of Metamucil to keep our plumbing unclogged.
One evening after dinner we took a night jungle walk. It was fascinating to observe an entirely different variety of animals that come out after dark (not unlike our own species). And when our guide had us turn off our flashlights under the moonless sky, we found ourselves enveloped by the blackest darkness you can possibly imagine. It was as if the whole world had suffered a power outage. But look up! There were all the stars and the constellations and planets, more brilliant than you’ve ever seen them before.
The final verdict? We had a spectacular time journeying through one of Earth’s last remaining unspoiled districts. Unfortunately, even that unspoiled status is not quite true anymore. Oil companies have been doing business in the region for several decades now, with predictable consequences. But many of the indigenous people still live a simple agrarian lifestyle that hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years. (Except for their i-Phones.) We feel privileged that we were allowed to visit their world.
Our next destination is the densely populated coastal city of Guayaquil. We’re hoping to get there on schedule, for a change. But that depends entirely on whether or not our next flight will end up being not-not canceled.