Fancy being stranded in the jungle with Ben Fogle? Keeley Bolger joins the famous television adventurer on a tour of Ecuador.
Dominic, a man for whom “going above and beyond the call of duty” is a bit of an understatement winces and says: “I think she’s a little shy.”
Face down and trouserless on top of a bed, in a packed Ecuadorian public hospital in Banos, in the Andean highlands, I wait while a no-nonsense nurse administers a Vitamin B injection the size of a baby’s arm into each of my buttocks.
“Si,” she says, handing over a packet of lurid orange painkillers, while I struggle to pull an unattractive pair of running trousers over my numb bottom.
I am feeling shy. Having been bucked off a horse, I’m now ungainly exposing my bottom to a group of near strangers – including our kindly host Dominic. It’s fair to say my South American holiday has taken an unexpected turn.
But once the initial embarrassment has subsided, I do feel a perverse sense of pride. Because ending up in the bustling Banos ward, getting by with scraps of Spanish gleaned from episodes of Breaking Bad and Dora the Explorer, is precisely the sort of story you might expect to hear from TV adventurer Ben Fogle. And it’s Fogle who I’m having dinner with tonight.
As an ambassador for Virgin Holidays, Fogle has launched a new Ecuador itinerary, which covers some of the compact country’s highlights. And already, we’ve heard some stories that put my horse riding episode into the shade.
At the age of 19, Fogle set off to Ecuador on what would be his first solo expedition. While working as an English language teacher, he was bitten by a rabid dog and had to endure a course of injections in his abdomen for days on end.
“I think the treatment is better now, though,” he says with a grimace. “I don’t think you have to have the injections straight into your stomach.”
Sensing a wave of nervousness roll across the table, Fogle switches conversation to Panama hats, which are being passed around and dutifully placed on heads. As our luggage hasn’t caught up with us yet, we’re all wearing see-through white T-shirts given to us by the airline, making us look like we’re on a Club 18-30 holiday. Fogle, however, has managed to maintain his dignity by travelling with hand luggage only; he’s obviously an expert at this. Amid all these transparent Ts, an entertaining Panama hat piece of trivia is a welcome distraction.
“These hats actually come from Ecuador,” says Fogle, as we slurp our locro, a local potato and cheese soup, topped with thick slices of avocado. “They got their name after newspapers ran stories on the workers of the Panama Canal, who wore them to protect themselves from the sun,” chimes our local guide Giovanni. “But they should be called Ecuador hats.”
Panama – or Ecuador – hats are big news in this country, but pale in comparison to chocolate, with cocoa beans being one of the top exports here.
And luckily for us, Giovanni believes that munching on the sweet treat helps with altitude sickness, something we all start to know about as we hurtle around rocky bends and nose-bleedingly high hills to get to Fogle’s next stop, Cotopaxi, an active volcano south of Ecuador’s capital, Quito.
Mummified in layers – partially to protect against the cool chill at the summit more than 5,000m above sea level, and partially to take advantage of our seemingly endless choices of outfits now our luggage has returned – we make our way to the top.
Slowly, it dawns upon us that after getting up Ecuador’s highest active volcano (active volcano!), we’ll have to get back down again on a mountain bike.
We’re kitted out with helmets and given sturdy bikes. Then, pushed on by the strong wind, we hurtle over rubble and rocks. A solitary van is our only other company, as we take the odd break to absorb the views of the Andes.
It takes under an hour to tear along the 10km track, and miraculously, we all make it down without a scratch.
My face is red and rubbery, hair flailing from beneath my helmet, and my stomach is somewhere north of my torso when Giovanni asks us if we had fun. The reply is a wind-muffled “yes”. But soon we swap the chill of the Andes for the magic of the Amazon rainforest.
Having spent our first day in Quito, making chocolates and marvelling at churches, then going horse riding in the Andes and cycling down a volcano, our trip has been wonderfully varied.
“The geography is Ecuador’s selling point,” agrees Fogle as we digest the scale of the Amazon, cooing at rainbow coloured butterflies and whopping great trees, whose branches form a fringe around a gushing river. “You only have to travel for a few hours to be in a completely different region.”
As we sweat under the glare of the Amazonian midday sun, watching motorbikes chug across a bridge, Fogle tells us about the rather ominous sounding “willy fish” – or Candiru to give them their proper name – so called because these tiny parasites latch onto their unfortunate victim’s genitals.
Fogle hasn’t suffered this misfortune, but cheerfully warns some apprehensive-looking white water rafters not to urinate, which attracts the little blighters.
The sights and sounds of the rainforest are enough to propel us onwards and Fogle declares he’s pleased he chose to design an itinerary for Ecuador.
Switching Andean landscapes for the Amazon, or even the Galapagos Islands in a manner of hours, presents travellers with South America “in a nutshell”, he says.
The riding injury I could have done without, but in every other way, this has been a real adventure and Fogle has been the perfect guide to crack this South American country.
• Keeley Bolger was a guest of Virgin Holidays Worldwide Journeys (www.virginholidaysjourneys.co.uk; 0844 225 1235) which offers the 11-day From the Andes to the Amazon escorted tour of Ecuador from £3,645pp (two sharing). Visits include Quito’s Old Town, Otavalos, Cotopaxi National Park, Riobamba, the Amazon jungle, Cuenca and Coca. Includes mixed board accommodation, guides, transfers and flights. Price is based on departures between October 1 and November 30