Out trip into the Amazon rain forest was Amazing. We began with a 25 minute flight from Quito to Agrio Lago (sour lake), an oil town deep in the jungle about 35 miles from the Colombian border. This is a rough wild-west type of town and the airport is just an asphalt strip cut in the middle of deep jungle.
We knew things were a bit different on arrival when we saw two sinister blackhawk helicopters, side doors open, machine guns mounted, displayed and ready to use. This is not for visual effect. The crews sit at ready in the shade of a squat faded, cement terminal building. They are not all Ecuadorian pilots either. A curly red headed, tall, freckle faced officer reminded us that the U.S. have their Plan Colombia in operation here.
A squad of soldiers broke from the jungle at the end of the runway, crossed the tarmac and entered the green foliage at the other end of the strip.
This security is all about oil. This is a main oil area and gunships protect the pipelines. Ecuador is a rich country, number one exporter in bananas, huge in shrimp, big flowers, cocoa and coffee, gold and silver, but its economic future depends on the oil.
Ecuador is the second largest oil exporter in South America and its economic plan for the next five years is based on doubling its production of the black gold.
Oil has been the nation's short term economic salvation, but this is the reason we are here as well because this same oil also creates huge ecological problems, destroys rain forests, pollutes streams, etc.
One way of combating this problem has been the creation of numerous huge eco-reserves and we headed for one of the largest, the Cuyabeno (good man) Reserve, 2,700 square miles of deep jungle rainforest that is highly protected.
This area has been created to conserve the fauna and flora and meet requirements so the native inhabitants in joint administration with the government can continue to live, as they always have, here.
The preserve is set into two areas, the first is open to tours through just six tour operators and three lodges of which our lodge is one. (Merri and I are have such a belief in this project that we have financed it and are joint owners of one of these three camps). No one except the indigenous are allowed into this area unless with one of the tour guides.
The second area is a zone of maximum protection where no one (except the indigenous) is allowed. This offers the wildlife population an exclusive area to live undisturbed.
At the airport we climbed into a dusty blue 17 seater bus and headed down the only asphalt road (paved for just a while-it quickly turned to gravel)for a two and a half hour ride to the Cuyabeno River, one of several tributaries that flow through the reserve into the Amazon.
The road was good, well kept to serve the pipeline, a huge dull, black snake, that ran beside us the entire drive. Ominous in the damage it presents, yet this is power, civilization and the portent of doom all at one time. I try to make it feel evil, but we are riding in a diesel bus and did get here in a gas guzzling Boeing 727, having reached the airport in our gasoline powered car.
This ominous tone is quickly cast off by the green wonder of the trip, magnificent folds, cuts and hills, rich green, splashed by silver leaves of the castor plant and an occasional blotch of brown representing Brahmin cows that thrive in this area.
The image is verdant, rich, huge kudzu like vines cling on flamboyans and great stands of bamboo. Stalks of Hawaiian Ginger and Heliconia (Birds of Paradise) spring from large clumps of Verbe de Monte (wire grass) that cover the roadside. Local buses roll by, open air affairs, gaudily pinstriped and colorful, reminiscing of old coca-cola trucks, painted and stuffed with riders instead of bottles of Coke.
Houses are built on stilts to remind us that this is a rain forest subject to an intense rainy season. They are clapboard, unpainted or in faded splashes of chipped pastel corals and turquoise. Rusty tin roofed or thatched palmed, held languid children who stood by the roadside and waved with puzzled looks, (like we are the first to pass, or perhaps they were asking, if you are so rich, why are you here). Rural schools noted each separate community, concrete buildings with open gaps between the walls and fibreglass roofs, so air can flow in from the joint soccer field-basketball court that lays in a concrete sheet or weedy, open field.
Jungle trees, fighting thick palmettos for sun, sport thin trunks and rise hundreds of feet before branching into the air. A line of these trees announced the Aqua Rico river, a wide, slow meandering tributary that runs from Peru to the Amazon.
We sped through Dureno, an oil town of faded shacks, clapboard, cement and cement block where a broomstick factory stood at the end of town announcing that not everything depends on oil.
The atmosphere turned rich and ripe, huge breadfruits and palms jutted from the jungle and we passed another town Paca Yacu, where further on in the midst of the jungle was a long tin roofed shack with the words "Night Club" written to attract the oil workers who toil 21 days in the jungle before having eight days off. Imagine a night at this club!
The next village Chiretza was surrounded by huge elephant ears and long banks of ancient looking ferns. Low plastic greenhouses spread out here so coffee beans can be dried more quickly. Village after village flashed by, Aqua Negro, being the last, each a slice of time, an adventure of untold stories waiting to be spun around a camp fire. Yet we sped on.
At last we reached an entry station to the park where the Cuyabeno River slips slowly by. A faded concrete building sat by an old bridge built on huge hardwood logs.
This is the dry season so we had to slip down a muddy slope to reach our long canoe, carved from one huge log. Fitted for twelve the Johnson 40 outboard motor could have sped us along, were it not for a multitude of vines, deadfalls and huge logs that lay strewn along the muddy bank at the many bends twists and turns in the stream.
The river flowed slowly, between 30 and 50 feet wide, a swirling brown lane in a canyon of green. Vines dripped from trees, sipping water and life for the canopy hundreds of feet above.
There are 500 species of birds, 100 mammals, 374 types of fish, manatee, pink dolphin and unimaginable numbers of amphibians, turtles, insects and such forms of life, so we were never alone.
We were immediately overjoyed that these life forms did not include a host mosquitoes or other eating bugs. The ecological platform here is in balance and natural predators, mosquito hawks, birds, bats etc. keep the bad bugs in check.
A Blue Morpho, flashed from the jungle in a wonderful iridescent azure, blinking, erratic pattern against the green. They become our constant companions as we floated past tangles of forest, vines, birds of paradise, huge sago palms, tiny queens, slim trunked and rising hundreds of feet to their lacy crowns. Clumps of fern bracketed wild orchids, that were splashes of red, yellow and orange. Everything here is bigger and on a grander scale.
A sign snapped from the foliage, "Land of the Siona-Secoya". This is what the lodge is about, its revenues are used in part to help support this tribe, building schools, providing basic needs and trying to stop the encroachment of western civilization so his community can live as they have for so many generations before.
A Kingfisher (a sign that the environment is clean- as they cannot stand pollution) landed on a red plant that the native guide tells is a contraceptive used by the locals. They boil it for two days and drink a cup a day to prevent unwanted childbirth. Yet the community here needs kids, only 43 remain in the community.
Perfumes floated through the areas, exotic, heady sweet smells, wild garlic, farnagapani and huge banks of honey suckle.
Huge fish roiled in the water. Ara Paima (tarpon) are one of the major food sources for the natives here. They are caught by trolling with a small fish until the tarpon is attracted. Then one fisherman uses a small canoe and detachable harpoon that hooks a strong line into the fish, leading to a long, exciting ride and finally dinner for many. Pirannahs and catfish also frequent the river and will add to our daily fare while we are here.
After about two and a half hours of this jungle canyon, the first of three lodges appeared. Our lodge is deepest in the jungle so we journeyed further before we arrived.
The stilt lodge is hidden in the jungle and approached by steps up from the river and a boardwalk through vine-covered jungle that leads to a thatched covered tee shaped building surrounded by jungle green.
Built of rough cut lumber, bamboo and thatch, the top of the tee contains the sleeping rooms, each with two, very comfortable queen size beds and private bathroom with shower. The base of the tee is a large, open air lounge filled with deck chairs and hammocks. Then there is a dining room with thirty foot hardwood table. In the kitchen beyond Rodrigo the chef, somehow cooks up incredible jungle feasts on his meager gas stove.
Wonderful smells wafted from the kitchen as candles blinked in the sunset offering a warm row of direction along the hand rails to our comfortable rooms.
The rainy season was just beginning, but mostly in the jungle it rains at night, so after a delicious meal of manioc bread, jungle stew, tropical fruits and herbal tea, we all gazed at the camp fire in the court yard for a bit before we walked bare footed along the thick hewn plank floors to our beds.
The jungle noises of the day faded into night sounds which serenaded us until the downpour began. Cozy in our tents of netting, the deluge pounded dreamily on the thatch. The pour wakened us just enough to appreciate the total silence that followed the rain, pure, utter quiet, deep, deep, nourishment and rest.
We took our standard four day, three night tour and part of this was bird watching. We saw such a huge variety I will not list them all here, but a few of the more notable were the colorful Hoatzin, something I cannot compare. I know of nothing like it that exists up north. The white throated toucan, yellow rumped cacique, mealy parrot, red capped cardinal, anhinga, hawk, vulture and heron, plus the blue crowned motmot and great tiamou were a few we saw.
There were also monkeys aplenty, tiny lion monkeys, baby faced squirrel monkeys and howler monkeys who sounded like jets rumbling in the distance.
The next morning after a breakfast of tropical delights, we boated to an obscure path, climbed out and hiked to the village of the Siona-Secoya that we protect. Our partnership with this community began after the village Shaman Aldemar saw our partner (Santiagio Guamani) in a dream as the man who would help his people.
On the trip into the tribe's home, we ate on the hoof. Food in the jungle is never far. Manioc a root, was a tasty (something like a light, sweet, juicy, raw potato) start. Then we moved onto Piton (looks like a Kiwi fruit which they also boil to get oil for shampooing hair). We ate sour cane (similar to rhubarb), sugar cane, cocoa (when fresh the fleshy fruit is quite delicious and totally unlike its dried, brown powdery state), coffee (similar to fresh cocoa), banana and a fruit they called grape, but which is more like lychee fruit, a white syrupy pulp that is extraordinarily sweet! What surprised us most was the sweet smell of coffee flower. This is more like jasmine or honeysuckle than the aroma we know when it has been dried, roasted and brewed. At the village we shared in a celebration with the locals having a sip of banana and manioc chi cha (beer). This was powerful stuff which the natives enjoyed more than we. Perhaps this was why they challenged us to some volleyball. The village has a net and we had brought a volleyball as a gift. Perhaps the bigger gift was their whipping us civilized people as we flopped around trying to keep up with them. In our defense we did manage to score twice before we were defeated 21 to 2.
Nights were absorbed cruising the river, spotlighting Cayman (alligators) and wrestling a smaller one. During the others days, aside from loafing in hammocks and enjoying the gentle always perfect temperature, we watched birds, fished for piranha, (delicious, flaky meat) and hiked in the jungle. The final evening Aldemar sat round the camp fire and talked to us of his tribe's history and his healing approach. He is 40, has studied since he was 10 and will study his entire life. The jungle is the world's pharmacopoeia and these natives know herbs better than most anyone. He cleansed us with leaves from the Chunga bush and told us of Huasi (a thin red root of a special palm) and a yellow Bromeliad flower that are cures for digestive problems and ulcers. He explained how Dragon's blood from tree bark dissolves liver problems and infections and Albaca leaves grown in muddy surroundings are cooked and mixed with a half gallon of pure water to lower blood pressure.
Not that blood pressure was a problem on this trip. This was a totally relaxing trip and I snuck the guest book to see what those who accompanied us wrote.
"Wonderful escape from the stressful world.: ES Houston "Incredible wildlife, so close to nature," RI Germany
"A thorough, relaxing trip, what a wonderful way to wind down." "I enjoyed the all natural food." JH Seattle
"I enjoyed hammocks and not having electricity. Never had a candle light shower before!" MF New Mexico
The return trip was as remarkable and we all arrived back in Quito more rested and perhaps more in touch with life than perhaps in a very long time.
We hope we can share this wonderful adventure sometime with you!