Always trust a mule

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I watched my friend trotting off into dense rainforest on the back of a mule who was clearly speeding up, the bridle with no bit offering next to no control, and felt the laughter bubbling up.

It was the final scene in a series of verging on the absurd moments we’d witnessed in the last hour or so during our trek from Rio Blanco, a gateway to Ecuador’s coastal dry tropical forest, just inland from the town of Puerto Lopez.

There was the sight of a seemingly domestic pony emerging out of thick, impassable jungle, like a scene from the TV series Lost, and the size of our own mounts, worryingly small with legs like sticks.

Deceptively slight, so it turned out, especially in the case of the mule who turned out to be more of a guide than our real guide, leading the way with his tiny hooves, large ears and unmistakeable sense of direction. Stopping at regular intervals to forage for small green fruits or palm leaves, he was like an equine Bear Grylls, only slightly less affable and with the air of a cynical rainforest veteran.

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Part way through the five-hour trek, watching the trail being hacked back into existence by our non equine guide, Danny, I remembered a truth about the more adventurous tours you can book while travelling.

If a tour is promoted, written about and sold, it by no means follows that said tour is in any way accessible, although there is always someone willing to take you. In our case, the rainy season meant the rainforest trails, already fairly impenetrable, were steep and slick with mud, and with the addition of low hanging vines, multiple streams and boulders to navigate, it was a case of gripping the western-style saddle pommel and giving the horse its head.

Despite the fear of landslides and lethal stumbles, there is an extreme sense of remoteness deep in the forest at the top of a steep climb, where we stop by an isolated hut, its moss roof dripping with water like jewels after a heavy rainfall, and listen for the sound of a toucan.

Danny calls his array of noises into the forest and waits for replies, picking out bush babies and howler monkeys in the distance. Later, he tells us that his friends are always asking him to move to the cities of Guayaquil or Quito, but he can’t understand why anyone would prefer to work all day typing in an ‘oficina’. It’s ‘mas tranquillo’, here in the forest, he says, and it’s hard to disagree.

His guiding technique, although enthusiastic, is slightly less comprehensible than it could be, since he follows the apparently general rule that if you say you can speak ‘un poco Spanish’, you can follow a stream of anecdotes and scientific descriptions of flora, fauna and birdlife.

Some communication may have been lost, but the message was there, and it only adds to the sense of being totally unreachable.

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