06.09.2010 - 09.09.2010
View First Foray into South America on LisaOnTheRoad's travel map.
Me again! And we’re off to the Amazon basin! We left the hotel for the airport and were met by Jorge, a rep from La Selva that checked us in and then escorted us to a private waiting room where we had tea or coffee, lounge, internet, etc. very VIP! Then off for the short 30 min flight over the Andes to Coca in the eastern part of Ecuador. So fantastic but not so much for photos. In many ways this wildlife adventure was the exact opposite of the Galapagos. We saw so many strange and wonderful creatures, but in the Amazon, unlike the Galapagos, everything has a predator, and the vegetation is so dense and wonderful, that your sightings are magical glimpses, most often far away. Unfortunately I don’t think I really captured the wonder of this place photographically, so will try to paint a picture with words.
Stepping off the plane we ran right into the reality of a rainforest – a constant, torrential downpour and heavy, humid air. Was a bit of an adventure traveling to the lodge. We took a 10 min bus ride to a rather suspect hotel in Coca, then waited for our motorized canoe to take us on a 2 ½ hour trip up the large Napo river, a major tributary of the Amazon, running from the foothills of the Andes. It was pouring down rain, the canoe low in the water and spraying river water over the sides as it picked up speed. When Jorge took a huge plastic sheet to wrap himself up in and then lay down to sleep, we knew we were in trouble and back to being wet! Really beautiful though. The trees kept getting bigger, with huge canopy trees rising suddenly from the surrounding forest.
We saw an oil operation on the way, which is Ecuador’s largest industry. Unfortunately the entire Amazon rainforest is sitting on top of masses of discovered, and undiscovered oil. The UN and the Ecuadorian government have come to an arrangement to limit the exploitation of oil in the rainforest. The UN is to pay Ecuador for holding on to this vital region for the planet and not allow further drilling into protected areas. Typically, the payments have not yet begun to arrive. The people, especially those concerned with the forest, are cynically hopeful that they will eventually come through and it will help protect the region.
The rain started to ease up as we approached our landing dock, which was high above the water line. There had been no rain for 8 days, and the river had dropped dramatically. Though by the next day it had risen 5 or 6 feet, which is amazing when you see how large the river is. This meant we had to climb out of the boat onto a muddy and slippery bank and clamber up the embankment. Christa, the first of our party to attempt this, promptly slipped into the river and mud! Poor girl. This is the first time we’d managed to get her into more adventure/wildlife type travel, and this wasn’t a good start. Tho we all had a good laugh and I took a lovely picture of the end result, which I have promised not to put onto the internet! After we had all disembarked onto relatively dry land we started a 30 min hike over a slippery rotting boardwalk, through a jungle, to Garzacocha Lake. A quick 20 minute canoe finally had us to our lodge.
La Selva is lovely and made with local building methods and materials. We met our guide Isabella, and our local native naturalist Adolpho, and after a bit of a rest and orientation… we went swimming! Well Jo, Ian and I did, Christa abstained, given her accident prone nature and went straight to fishing for piranhas… at the dock next to where we were swimming!!! We were assured that the piranhas don’t attack people (except in Brazil were they go through periods of drought and starvation). Uh huh! But still, you can’t not take an opportunity to swim in the Amazon rainforest.
The water was actually quite nice and warm, but we were told not to jump too deep so we didn’t stir up or touch the bottom. Uh huh… The water is also very brown with all the silt and nutrients, which means we couldn’t see anything in the water around us. It’s filled with fish, eels and caiman crocodile that grow to 2.5 metres long – they apparently won’t eat us either. We also saw a massive fish, a pirarucu, crest the water on the canoe ride in. They apparently grow to 3 metres and are very territorial, making itself known when the canoes come too close to its area. We didn’t stay in the water all that long.
After swimming, we joined Christa trying to catch piranhas with pieces of pork on a hook and line. Although we all had lots of bites, and had to replace the meat frequently, Christa was the only one of us to land one. A red-bellied piranha, and it had really big teeth. Good for Christa cause leaving our room for dinner, she went through a board on our walkway, and then took out the handrail trying to catch herself! Luckily she wasn’t hurt but she’s getting a bit of a reputation and is a bit worried how she’ll survive trekking in the jungle in our rubber boots!
After dinner we went on a night jungle hike! Really!! Going out looking for night insects. In the Amazon jungle 70% of life is nocturnal. It was unreal walking through the thick growth, getting stuck in the mud and trying to avoid not touching or grabbing on to anything. There is a surreal beauty to the forest at night, making me anxious to see it in the daytime. As we walked scanning the sides and giant trees and ferns for life, I was struck by how alien it all seemed. The plant life is gigantic and most things completely unrecognizable. Large vines hang down across your path, thick trees and bushes and ferns stretching out high overhead and across the path, gently brushing against you as you go by, sometimes, brushing your head, which is pretty startling let me tell you in the thick of the night.
The sounds were also incredible. Constant and loud. Owls, crickets, cicadas, frogs, and countless other insects made an almost deafening sound that continued through the night as we slept under mosquito netting in our bamboo huts. At one point Isabella had us all turn out our torches. Was completely black, with patches of dark blue slowly becoming visible over head in the small patches open to the sky through the dense canopy.
We saw tons of critters. First up was a med sized tarantula about the size of my palm. Then a really long, almost cuddly millipede that Isabella picked up to show us. A couple of mating stick insects, lots of spiders of all sizes and webs of giant proportions. Night crickets with really long feelers, day crickets hunkered down with their short feelers. A huge snail, about 10 inches long. A cicada moulting as it grew to its next size. This looked really alien – like one creature was bursting from the body of another. A bullet ant that will apparently make a grown man cry! So probably make a woman whimper? It was about an inch long. We were warned not get close to them, and never to lean unthinking against a tree as the most painful things in the jungle are the smallest. A giant cockroach about 3 inches long landed on Ian, and we made him stay still as it crawled up his pant leg and shirt so we could get a picture of it with size perspective, only fair! And a weird sort of mock spider called a whip spider or a tailless scorpion.
It was surprising to learn that the rainforest is actually a desert. With very poor soil, and no water past the surface soil. The trees trap the moisture that feeds the forest and the rivers. So much water that the Amazon dumps 56 million gallons of fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean per second! You can go out 100 miles into the ocean from the river and still be in fresh water.
Most of the nutrients come from decaying forest material, which means the jungle is very short lived, not like our Canadian temperate rain forests. Some trees can grow 6 meters per year, and all of them have very rapid growth compared with other types of forests. Some tree trunks are huge, spreading out to gain nutrients from the surface. Others, like the walking palm have a trunk that branches out into many long ‘legs’ that move toward moisture. There is incredible biodiversity in the forest. Everything is so specialized and there’s not much competition between plants and animals since they each focus on a small part of the forest for sustenance. In North America for example, there are 200 species of trees. In one hectare of land in the Yasuni National Park where we were, over 420 species of trees. Tiny Ecuador has over 1500 species of birds, North America just over 700.
Day 2 saw us spend the morning on a canoe ride back on the Napo and then hiking through the forest. Saw tons of parrots, a crowned night heron, capuchin monkeys as well as squirrel and black-maned tamarind monkeys and the strangest of all, a strange bird called a stink-turkey or hoatzin. This bird is the only member of its genus and family. It eats leaves and has multiple stomachs to digest them, similar to cows. There is no agreement about how to classify this bird in relation to any other bird, but fossil records seem to indicate it is a prehistoric bird and may be a link between dinosaurs and birds. Still, seems to be controversy there too.
Unfortunately, Joanne, Ian and I seemed to have picked up a bug, so we missed the night boat ride. Eight months traveling in India without an issue, and I get waylaid in South America. Christa is good though, which is only fair given her accidents thus far.
Day 3 and our usual 5:30 wake up and into the jungle by 6:30, trekking to the canopy tower high in the top of a really tall tree. Passed a troop of black-maned tamarinds and later on some capuchins. Also saw toucans, tanagers, barbets, flycatchers and tons of other birds I don’t have a hope in hell of remembering the names of, from the tower.
The humidity here is something else – 80%. You really noticed how much the forest traps when we were in the tree canopy, where it was relatively cool. Taking the stairs back down to the forest floor, the oppressive wet humidity starts to creep on you, until you are on the ground and completely soaking wet. The temperature is not all that high, though the sun is intense, maybe 28 degrees C, but you are completely covered in sweat as soon as you step into the forest.
Jungle attire is fun, and despite the heat you should cover up. So we have our rubber boots, with trousers tucked in. Apparently chiggers (small ticks) are an issue, and they like to climb pretty high before feeding. Didn’t want a repeat of the Sri Lankan leech experience, so I tucked those pants in very well let me tell you! My versatile Indian headscarf has come in handy here too. I tied it on in the jungle to keep critters dropping down on my head, plus can pull the end round to wipe your face at will and stop the sunscreen and deet from pouring into your eyes!
The forest is filled with all kinds of useful items that the locals use, in fact they rely on the forest for everything. 1 in 4 plants has a medicinal value to the natives, and countless others a practical tool or food value. Adolpho showed us the tagua nut, or vegetable ivory. Makes all kinds of useful things like buttons and carved items, but also is a water source for locals, since when it is young, it is much like a coconut for milk inside. Also filed my snagged nail with a sandpaper leaf. Very effective and a wonderful grit for nail filing. Adolpho also caught a poison dart frog to show us. One of the less toxic varieties used to poison weapons by the forest people – he just has to be sure that he doesn’t touch his eyes or mouth before washing.
On our final canoe trip, we spotted a troop of howler monkeys high in the trees by the lake. They are the largest, and loudest monkeys in the forest and a favourite food source for the Quechwa, so once they were sure they’d been spotted, they melted into the forest. A wonderful sighting of a monkey who’s calls we had heard since our arrival. A fitting end to our time here.
Loved this part of the trip, but didn’t see a jaguar, so will just have to try again. After all, it took 4 trips into Indian parks before I saw a tiger!
Oh yeah, and best Pisco Sours thus far were had at the lodge bar!!