Over the course of my trip to the Ecuadorian Amazon, I manage to shed the layers of civilization with each transitional form of transportation: first the hectic taxi ride from Quito, then the flight through the extremes of the ecozone, from the snowy Andes. to the sultry lowland rainforest in just 30 minutes. Then two hours on a brain-busting gravel road, the same road that houses the infamous oil industry pipeline.
Arriving at the river dock, I say goodbye to the last vestiges of civilization, as local Ecuadorians at this Amazonian outpost gather on the muddy bank of the river to watch us leave. Our motorized canoe was loaded with people, belongings, and supplies. As we applied mosquito repellent, a distinctive citrus scent emerged, mixing with the humid tropical air that enveloped the region.
Once underway, I could feel that at the first bend of the river, through a kaleidoscope of green and brown tones, the heart of the Amazon was waiting.
Our meandering transport through the murky jungle river went deeper and deeper into the jungle. Soon the journey would become extremely interesting …
Surprising us from higher ground somewhere in the thick foliage of the trees, the Amazon women, easily reaching fifteen meters in height, loosen with an arsenal of spears in our immediate direction. With their spears whizzing past our heads, we managed to overcome their unprovoked attacks.
At the next bend, the river narrowed. Huge vines hung down to the river’s edge. Clinging to the vines were dozens of anacondas slithering away, hanging precariously close to our heads as we passed. The Dutch children on board were almost quickly carried away by the largest anaconda, barely twenty feet long. Our quick response with our supplied machetes prevented the kidnapping of the children.
Farther down, downstream, the sky was filled with the sounds of a hundred bees or so we initially thought. The buzzes were in fact poisonous darts aimed at us by hostile natives hiding in the forest. Fortunately, his cursed darts missed their targets.
A brief respite from the path of danger was abruptly interrupted by a seething frenzy of activity in the waters ahead. The source of the frenzy was a thousand piranhas hungry looking for an afternoon snack. We took our hands and feet out of the water, driving through his frenzied madness. They continued to chase us downstream, like a fast-moving armada of hungry alligators.
Our adversary mantle tested, we managed to prevail, and after two hours of such Amazonian encounters, we finally reached our destination, Cuyabeno Lodge, which rested along the Laguna Grande. Now our adventure would really begin …
That is one version of what happens when you travel through the Ecuadorian Amazon. Now here’s another …
The boat trip was actually a very relaxing and peaceful experience. Certainly there were creatures in the tall trees we found. There were four different species of monkeys, as well as a blue and yellow macaw, and a toucan flirting through the treetops. The ubiquitous jungle fisherman, the kingfisher, led us downstream. Only a small alligator came into view on a sunny river bank and gave us no warning.
To our surprise, the black waters of Laguna Grande were safe to swim in, and we swam every day. Meanwhile, the piranha swam in the shallow, brackish estuaries downstream. Magical experiences also occur in that lake. A gloriously dramatic sunset cast the colors pink, gold, aqua and sienna onto the developing storm clouds and placid surface waters.
The rare pink freshwater dolphins were also present at the show. In silence, we watched a mother dolphin and her two babies emerge and re-emerge in the calm waters of the river. After sunset, a group of us who stayed at the lodge went into the now dark rainforest; night is when the Amazonians really come to life, big and small.
We were equipped with only our senses and a flashlight. The stillness was incredible. Point the lantern … tarantula at a tree … point it again, a small light green frog under a leaf. What were those big eyes that were shining in my beam ?!
The short boat trip back across the lake was also dramatic as the storm cloud that developed earlier was released with its stinging patter of raindrops, the rain and lake vegetation illuminated by our boat’s reflector and the distant flashes of lightning.
The following night, Laguna Grande offered a spirit portal to the vast scintillating universe above. The sky was so clear and so free from the lights of civilization that all the stars in the universe shone that night. So close were they that if you stood on the bow of the ship, you could touch them.
Earlier that afternoon, we fished piranhas with fresh chunks of meat as bait in the murky waters of the river.
The silences and sounds of the Amazon jungle are fascinating. The humidity, especially while walking inland away from the cooling effect of the open water, can be suffocating but no worse than my days living in Florida.
Downstream we visit a small Amazonian indigenous community of Siona. The days of loincloths and pierced bones in the nose are long gone. If you go further into the Ecuadorian Amazon, you may still find members of the Huaorani tribe with a more traditional appearance.
The jaguar and anaconda are certainly in the jungle, simply more elusive than our perceptions of the jungle would have us believe.
The oil industry in this region has certainly inflicted ecological damage to the otherwise pristine Amazon rainforest. In the 1990s, the government of Ecuador applied a tourniquet to the hemorrhage of environmental damage by creating the Cuyabeno Reserve National Park, which encompasses the Laguna Grande, preventing the invasion of the oil industry. Ownership of the land was first granted to the indigenous tribes of the region, with the assumption that the tribal elders would consider a priority protection for the land. However, even indigenous men can behave with greedy intentions because some in the community decided to resell the land to the oil industry, slightly defeating the original benevolent purpose of the legislation. So, a political adjustment was made, declaring the land as a national park, with the tribes on free lease, not ownership, on the protected land.
In my thatched-roof open-air hut, my only nocturnal visitors were three curious cockroaches, while neighboring monkeys and alligators kept their distance. My bed was equipped with mosquito nets which thankfully weren’t overly tested. The mosquitoes bothered me little during my stay, as the neighboring lake produced algae that deterred the mosquitoes from laying eggs.
The five days I spent in the Amazon flowed peacefully, naturally, like the waters and the inhabitants themselves. Returning to the so-called civilized world was difficult.
Oh! Was it a small dart that hit me in the neck?