Mother’s Day was off to a great start.  At 8am sharp, Pablo, from Dracaena and our driver arrived outside our hostel.  Pablo, who had come along to get us settled, introduced us to Ricardo, the man who would be our driver for at least the next 7 hours.  Ricardo spoke even less English than we did Spanish so it was bound to be an eventful ride.  Pablo again reiterated to us (in English) that we would stop at the hot springs in Papallacta, stop for lunch, and stop for a hike to Ecuador’s highest waterfall and basically the trip was ours, we could stop where we wanted.  As we hopped into the dual cab pickup, the weather in Quito was a comfortable 60 degrees with sunny skies.  Over the next 7 hours the weather would change drastically.

The ride started out smooth enough.  Not too far outside of Quito we headed straight up.  That was a surprise.  We were already over 9000 feet in Quito and I guess we just expected we would be heading down to the Amazon, not up.  The higher we climbed, the more the clouds and patches of rain moved in and the colder we became.  Luckily Ricardo expected this and handed us a blanket.  Tristan looked up the route in the guidebook and it showed our route would take us up to 13,451 feet. We would definitely be getting much colder. There wasn’t much to see at this altitude, as the clouds  really covered everything.  Occasionally you would see a house or a cow, but mainly the view was rocky soil with little growth.  About 2 hours later and at a little lower altitude of  3300 meters (10826 feet) we arrived at the town of Papallacta home of the best hot springs in Ecuador, the Termas de Papallacta.  Ricardo dropped us off and went to park (and, we hoped, wait for us) and we grabbed our swimsuits and headed into the baths. 

The price of $7 per adult was a little high for Ecuador we thought, but we didn’t want to miss this.  The baths were beautifully landscaped.  Although there were several pools, in large, medium and small sizes, the pools were secluded behind lush trees or bushes with beautiful red and orange flowers, making it seem more like a garden.  The pools themselves were artfully done with clear water in bright blue tiled pools.  Stone paths lead from one pool to another.  It was really very beautiful.  The changing room was interesting.  It was a unisex bathhouse so to speak,  and inside you went into these tiny changing rooms.  There were no sides designated male or female, but you were changing in a stall with a curtain so it was fine.  Tessa and I changed first then waited for Dan and Tristan.  Next we rented towels, then huddled together to decide which pool to start with.  Luckily for us we were there early and it wasn’t too crowded yet.  Unfortunately, it was cold and rainy. We hurried to the closest bath we could find.  It was warm but not as warm as we were expecting so we moved on to the next one.  It was better but soon Tristan and Tessa left in search of even warmer water.  I must say we were quite the oddity for some reason.  People were very curious about us. We didn’t mind.  We just smiled and enjoyed ourselves. On a great weather day at the baths, you had intense sun.  On a bad weather day, like that day, you got cold rain.  On a great weather day you could see snow capped  Volcan Antisana, the volcano that last erupted November 2002.  That day we saw only partially up the mountain with the clouds blocking our view.  But still, sitting in the warm pool with my family, the rain gently falling, the clouds incredibly close, it was my best Mother’s Day ever. 

We enjoyed the pools for about an hour then it began to get crowded.  Realizing we had a long trip in front of us, we dried off, changed our clothes, bought some snacks and headed back to Ricardo. We had just driven out of Papallacta when Ricardo’s cell phone rang.  He pulled to the side to take the call.  (A side note here.  Every time we were in a private car or van and the driver’s cell phone rang, the driver would pull off the road to talk.  I’m sure it wasn’t a law, but we appreciated the safety.)  Of course the conversation was in Spanish and we didn’t know who he was talking to, but we inferred from the words we could understand that he was telling someone we were just leaving Papallacta and had about 5 or 6 hours to go.  We didn’t think too much about it at the time but about an hour later he received another phone call and the conversation was about the same, wondering when he would be at a certain place.  It was then that Ricardo started driving faster.

The road to Lago Agrio was very winding.  The scenery, was really beautiful.  It seemed around every hairpin turn was another waterfall.  Tessa amused Tristan by quoting from the Frommer’s Spanish Phrasefinder and Dictionary trying to find the funniest phrases.  First she would read them in Spanish, then translate, then they would dissolve into giggles. 

Tessa:  “Ese pasajero se ests comportando sospechosamente. The passenger is acting suspiciously. ”

Tristan and Tessa would then crack up.

Tessa:  “Necisito una bolsa para mareos.  I need an airsickness bag.”

Hysterical laughter. She was actually doing a really good job.  But instead of complimenting Tessa on speaking Spanish correctly and reading Spanish, I said,  “Stop it.  You know Ricardo can understand what you are saying!”

More laughter from both of them.  My admonishment only fueled the fire.

Tessa: “Huelo algo extrano.  I smell something strange.”

Side splitting laughter that time.  Even I was laughing.  Ricardo was smiling too.  This went on for about another half an hour.  Then things started to turn dark. 

Ricardo got another phone call.  We were starting to put the picture together now.  It was Mother’s Day and he was supposed to be somewhere else, not driving us to Lago Agrio.  Every time the phone rang, he drove faster.  This wouldn’t have been so bad, but the roads were very winding.  Tristan was the first to go down.

“Mom, I think I’m going to throw up.”

“No, you’re not going to throw up.”  I handed him a Wet One to put behind his neck.  It didn’t seem to help. Again he said he’s going to be sick.

“Take your finger and start tapping on the middle of your forehead.”

Ok, I know this sounded strange, but sometimes it works. You take your finger and tap on a point on your forehead, just up from the bridge of your nose.  It’s in the location of what they call your “third eye”.  I’ve found that tapping on it somehow resets your body. Tristan started  tapping but he wasn’t doing it with much enthusiasm.  I leaned over Tessa, who was in between us and started tapping on his forehead. I wasn’t  sure how long I could keep it up.  Fortunately, in a few minutes he felt a little better.  I told him we would get him some Sprite when we stopped for lunch.

By now it was getting close to noon and those of us who weren’t carsick were starving. We kept thinking Ricardo would stop for lunch soon, but he showed no indication.  No sooner did we get Tristan feeling better, then Tessa, who was seated in the middle, started getting sick. 

“I’m going to throw up” she yelled and clamped her hands over her mouth.

“No! Tap your forehead!”

The scenery was rushing by us, Ricardo is nearly on two wheels around the hairpin curves and I’m tapping on my daughter’s forehead like a crazy woman. 

Tessa: “It’s not working!”

Me: “Ok, pinch your earlobe instead.”  Ok, I was just making stuff up here but what would you do?  There was no place to pull over and I wasn’t sure what the proper phrase would be.  What we needed was something to drink.  I asked Ricardo to slow down, which he did, for awhile.  Then I asked him about lunch, but he suspiciously didn’t seem to understand.  Meanwhile I kept tapping Tessa’s head and pinching her earlobe.  Finally Ricardo pulls off onto a side road and we thought maybe we were stopping for lunch.   Actually we were at the San Rafael Falls.  Ricardo told us that it was a $10 per person admission and a 40 minute walk.  That  was just not an option for us right then.  Dan, Tristan and I were starving and Tessa was sick.  We told him no thanks and again I mention lunch and he again seemed  to ignore that.  We did stay there for a few minutes, trying to settle Tessa’s stomach before we started off again.  In the next 20 minutes we have to stop the car at least twice for Tessa. I felt so bad but there was nothing to do.  Even slowing down hadn’t seem to help and there was no other choice for her but to get back in the truck and make the best of it.    Finally I get smart and have her sit by the door, where for the of the trip she hangs her head out the window like a dog. It worked.  She felt better. Now it was my turn to sit in the middle and become sick. 

We passed through a small town and we saw people eating at a restaurant.  I said to Ricardo “Necisito almuerzo (lunch)”  He shook his head and said, in English, “No.  Not good here.  Lago Agrio eat.”  The restaurants looked fine to us, and we have eaten in all kinds of places but it was clear he had no intentions of stopping until Lago Agrio.  It’s also clear to us he had somewhere he needed to be at a certain time.  Rich ado told us that it wasn’t much longer, about 95 kilometers but we were suspicious.  He did stop at a gas station when I asked him to and we were able to get some Gatorade, which helped.  At this point we would all be glad to reach Lago Agrio.

While the car sickness drama had been going on, we have been passing by an ever changing panorama.  After Papallacta the terrain was mostly downhill.  Waterfalls were so abundant, I soon stopped taking pictures.  The mountains were an incredible shade of green and the rain soon gave away to sunnier skies.  On a bad note, soon after leaving Papallacta, we noticed this ugly large pipe running parallel to the road.  This pipeline brings oil from the Amazon to the Northern Provinces in Ecuador.  The Amazon unfortunately is big oil business. (See story at end of this entry)  Texaco was the first oil company to drill here.  The town was originally named Nueva Loja but was nicknamed Lago Agrio after Texaco’s hometown of Sour Lake Texas. 

Further down the road we stop for gas.  We  brought snacks with us for our stay in the Amazon but unfortunately they were in the back of the truck and we can’t reach them.  I did have the big Snickers bar given to me that morning for part of my Mother’s Day gift.  Generously and dramatically I agreed to share my treasure with the group.  It was much appreciated.  By that time the weather was hot and the landscape was flat, less trees and more grass.  There were more small communities too and more traffic.  Large trucks working for the oil companies dominated the road.  Close to 5:00 we pulled into the unglamorous town of Lago Agrio.  Here was how Lonely Planet described Lago Agrio:

Few tourists step foot here and locals seem exasperated by the town’s sad reputation .  But certain realities exist, including a high amount of prostitution and crime related to the nearby Colombian border. 

Richardo drops us off at the Hotel D’Mario.  We choose to stay here because it was the best of the available hotels on the strip and also where we would be picked up in the morning for the remainder of our journey to the Cuyabeno reserve.  Dan asked me about tipping Ricardo (Pablo had suggested $20) and I said absolutely not.  The trip was insane,  Besides, we wouldn’t be seeing him again anyway.  It would be different if we were but since we weren’t, forget it.

Another reason for our hotel choice was air conditioning.  Lago Agrio was hot and humid.  After coming from spring like Quito it was very hard to get used to.  Except for a quick venture out to buy flip flops for Tristan (he left his on the plane) sunglasses for Dan (his fell apart as soon as we got to Lago Agrio) and a flashlight and batteries for the Amazon we stayed inside. Prices in the town, except for the hotel, were actually reasonable for the last outpost before the Amazon.  The sunglasses were $4, the flipflops $6, the flashlight $3 and batteries 50 cents.  Beer and pop were equally reasonable, a 22oz bottle of Pilsener (a great tasting beer) for under a dollar.  In fact further down the river you could buy case of 22oz bottles for under $10.00.

Here’s a link to prices in Ecuador and it seems accurate.

We had an alright meal at the hotel and stayed in the remainder of the evening, enjoying our much needed air conditioned rooms.  The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast and joined the other tourists, with different tour groups, who were waiting for their rides. That day we would have a 2 hour taxi ride to reach the canoes on the river.  From there we would have a 3 hour canoe trip to the Cuyabeno reserve.  It would be a long but fun day.  Our pickup time was 9:00 am. On the dot our ride, a pickup truck from Dracaena arrived to pick us up.  To our dismay, Ricardo greeted us with smiles and loaded our bags into the truck.  Apparently he didn’t hold a grudge.

                     Texaco in Lago Agrio Ecuador

Between 1964 and 1992 Texaco (now owned by Chevron) and Petroecuador have taken 5.3 billion liters of oil from this area.  During this time, Texaco admits it intentionally dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic oil and wastewater into the forest including 18 million gallons of crude, twice that of the Exxon Valdez. 

Here is a link for a current article on the National Geographic

The spill poisoned the water and forest which in turn poisoned the indigenous populations, especially the Cofan and Secoya tribes.  These tribes live in the Amazon today much the same way they have for an eternity.  The spill has resulted in increased rates of cancer and birth defects.  It is an incredibly sad story. When you compare what has happened to the Amazon from an American company, with our anger at BP for a potential threat to our environment, it really makes you think.