Every guidebook, travel agency, and local advice, claimed Coca as the gateway to the Ecuadorian Amazon. There are tours of the Selva or the Cuyabeno but for the true jungle experience, Coca’s the only option, at least that’s what the local gossip told me. The town sits deep in the heart of the jungle, and from there the tours head 4 days deeper in by boat. I had heard from two Spaniards, at least as best as I had understood them, that they’d done a 4 day, 3night tour from there for $100, all inclusive, so that’s what I was after.
I got into Coca after seven hours of riding, through the heavy Amazon canopy, and the wettest, wettest roads I’d seen since northern Guatemala during their unusually heavy rainy season. It down poured the whole way and while I suspect the views where spectacular, with waterfalls and greens on both sides, the visibility was nil, and just trying to keep two wheels on the road took all my concentration and vision, so not much to report.
Just as I pulled into Coca, the rain stopped. …of f’ing course, grrrrr. The sky’s cleared up, and steam started rising from the streets; And once again I experienced the sudden change from cold winter weather, to hot, steamy tropical climate, in a matter of minutes. Still wrapped in my plastics and winter gear, I found myself scrambling to park the bike and strip. I made it to the malecon; parked, stripped, and grabbed a late lunch and beer before figuring out where to stay. As I was eating, a German couple approached me and the skinny on their experience through the Amazon. Their stories were great and went something like this… “We went swimming with piranhas, caymans and electric eels. The guide told us they were nothing to worry about and we fished out a few piranhas a few inches big. But then I saw the ones in the market. They were huge”. “…And at night we went out and couldn’t see anything. We’d be standing and the guide would say “look”, and he’d reach with his hand and grab a tarantula, or a lighting frog, or a poison dart frog, or some other animal that’ll kill you, all within arms reach.” “…I’m never doing this again.” I was sold immediately and wanted to make it happen. I approached their guide but he said there were no tours going on in the next few days that he knew about and if I wanted to go on one, I should book it through Quito.
I was feeling pretty excited about the Amazon, so after the German couple left, I pulled out the LP to see what they had to say about Coca, and if there was some useful advice. To my surprise, and for the first time that I’ve ever seen, the Lonely Planet actually dis’ed the place. While the review of Coca started with one positive statement, it went on to describe it as an ugly, dirty, and dangerous industrial oil city with nothing of significant interest except being the gateway to the Amazon. There was some truth to it, at least the oil worker city with a pipe line heading out of town and two of the neighboring towns called “Shell” and “Gulf” but with the oil companies logos at the towns entrances.
The LP also said there were only three travel agencies and that it’s better to book a tour though Quito. Great! I went in search of the three travel agencies listed only to find out they were all gone and there were no more travel agencies in town. Having seen first hand the enormous power of the Lonely Planet carries, I can’t help but think it’s negative description of the town played a major role in closing down the agencies.
With all the agencies closed, I walked to docks and asked the workers if there were any tour options. The main scoop I got was there would probably be tours coming through in the next week or so but they didn’t know when or if I could piggy back on them but I could wait ready to go every morning at 7:30am by the dock (which I tried the following morning but no tours were scheduled). They also all suggested I book something from Quito. Doh!
Despite the disappointment of the tours, Coca was really interesting. Different fish and fruits in the market and I tried my first piranha. Truth be told, it was a bit dry and bony but it was also over cooked so it would be worth trying again.
The Amazon tour was just not in the cards so I decided to explore what I could by bike through various dirt roads not on any map before heading back to Quito to make one more effort to climb Cotopaxi (also a dud, due to a recent avalanche taking out the climbers path, and high avalanche danger in the forecast).