Day 149 – 28 Jul, 2015
People often ask what my scariest moment in South America was. If you’ve never been there, you would probably expect me to say I was mugged or was mysteriously drugged and relieved of all my belongings. If you HAVE been there, you won’t be surprised that my scariest moment was a bus accident, the kind we all know can happen but secretly think it’s the sort of thing that happens to other people – the kind that happens at night, in the rain, going too fast, careening off the road. I was sitting immediately behind the driver and he had seemingly fallen asleep. Everyone awoke to a loud bang as we had drifted sideways into a ditch. The problem being that the minibus didn’t stop. We continued barreling down the ditch at a 45 degree angle, knowing we would either stop on our own or hit something and all 21 passengers had at least 5 seconds (a long time in a crisis!) to ponder how we were going to die. I don’t want to waste a lot of space writing about that awful night but I do believe all of us were extremely lucky to be spared without injury under the circumstances, the bus company (eventually) refunded our money and fired the driver, and I was left with the indelible emotional scar of a South American traveler. I really hate those buses.
Well, where were we headed on that fateful night? Booked with various tour companies, all of the passengers on that bus were going to Lago Agrio in eastern Ecuador, the gateway to Ecuador’s primary rainforest. From Lago Agrio, we were separated into our various groups and sent further afield to Cuyabeno, a flooded plain with a diverse array of wildlife.
In 2010, I visited Manu National Park in southern Peru. It was incredible. So incredible, in fact, that I wasn’t going to visit the Amazon this time because I thought it couldn’t be topped. After I watched other friends take their jaunts into the jungle, I couldn’t not go again. It’s that obligatory experience that you must have in South America, lest you miss a huge opportunity – to see the jungle while you still can.
Our travels into the jungle started with a motorized canoe upriver to Lago Cuyabeno, amongst dense forest that would envelop us each time we passed a bend in the river. In the canoe, we had a rare opportunity to see a female sloth with her baby hanging about 50 meters up in a tree. The mother hung on to the tallest branch with one hand, using the other hand to pick only the best tasting leaves for her dinner, while the baby had both arms wrapped around its mother in a grip that could not be broken. It’s true that sloths move at a pace almost slower than paint drying so it’s not hard to imagine they are easy prey for a predator. This is why they spend so much time so high up in trees, yet eagles have been known to take full advantage. We also saw 3 species of monkeys on that first day and were just a few minutes too late to spot the queen of the jungle – the Giant Anaconda (an earlier group had scared her away).
Our cosy accommodations, Caiman Lodge, were located on a narrow inlet from the main lake and had small rooms outfitted with screens instead of walls and beds covered by mosquito netting so that you could sleep listening to the sounds of the jungle. And that we did. One night, I could hear capuchins noisily arguing over a banana outside my cabin. And in the morning, I found a frog perched on the shower head and I could see a pair of macaws resting within inches of my “window.” In fairness, one of these macaws had been injured when, a native who was trying to keep it as a pet, clipped its wings. Because macaws have one mate for life, the other one stays with its partner even though it is able to leave. They never leave that tree and members of the kitchen staff at Caiman try to feed them leftover fruit when it’s available. Conversely, the capuchins that live in the canopy are constantly sneaking into the open-air kitchen to steal fruit and it’s a routine battle of wills on who wins between the monkeys or the humans.
The lake isn’t a real lake. It’s actually a flooded plain that never really drains because the rainy season has become longer year after year. Our guide, David, said that in previous times this whole area was dry enough that he could camp here. You can see the tops of trees, growing from seemingly nowhere, that have adapted to being mostly submerged. In this “lake,” you can find the Pink River Dolphin, if you’re lucky, and, on occasion, they will play games with the canoes. Try as we might, we couldn’t get the dolphins to pay much attention to us. They stayed hidden under the glassy surface, giving us only a glimpse of a mother and baby with only a mild amount of curiousity toward our presence. As the sun started to set, David gave the thumbs up to anyone that wanted to dive in. Two Canadian guys from our canoe, Connor and Sebastian, did simultaneous back flips into the murky water. In this case, given the threats of anacondas, caimans, piranhas, and general invasive parasites, I kept myself safely inside the boat.
On one particularly muddy walk, we ventured inland to search for land-loving species. We were warned that we would have to traverse through a swamp so we were issued standard rubber galoshes to keep us dry. On the walk, we encountered unique Amazon species like the blue morph butterfly, a marmoset, and various birds and amphibians. Virtually everywhere you look, there is something alive and trying to blend in to its surroundings. And the sounds of the jungle are just as vibrant – a hoot, a squeal, a cackle, a snort. To identify all of the sounds is impossible.
When we approached the swampy area, David began giving us instructions on how to walk without falling in the water. It seemed pretty easy in theory. You use your legs and walk right? Under the surface is a sludge of decomposing organic matter, tree roots, fallen trees, and, of course, lots of living creatures. There are a number of obstacles to cause you to trip or get stuck or bite you or just scare you half to death. It became obvious this was not a test of walking ability. It was an experiment in concentration, balance, and fearlessness. We had to trust the person in front of us to warn us about obstructions or, to the contrary, if there was something helpful like a firmly rooted tree to hang on to or a log under the water to walk on. Using a large stick for balance and for probing the ground for depth and consistency also proved necessary. Half of the group had swamp water in their boots or had taken a slip at least waist deep. It took us nearly 30 minutes to cross about 50 meters and I was relieved to be done.
Not all creatures can be seen during the day so it’s compulsory to pair a day hike with a night walk as well. I have done enough night walks to know that this is when you see mostly spiders and insects. As an arachnophobe, I try to appreciate the spiders in their natural environment but I always make sure someone is walking ahead of me in case there is a large web across the path, I can let someone else walk into it before me. Sorry…but it’s the truth. We were considered lucky to spot a tarantula and a boa and David was happy to handle them so we could get a closer look.
On a rainy afternoon, we traveled further into the rainforest to meet a shaman and make cassava bread with a local woman. We followed her to what looked like a mass of overgrown weeds and she began hacking at the roots with a machete. Using all of her strength, she pulled cassava out of the ground, one after another. We peeled and collected them in large mesh bags, carried back to her cooking shelter, washed, grated and cooked it for a nice snack with jam. It mostly tastes like nothing unless you put hot sauce or jam or SOMEthing on it, but it was fun to learn how to make it nevertheless.
As a grand finale, on our way back to Caiman Lodge, David halted the canoe rather abruptly. He had spotted something shining in the sunlight. An adolescent giant anaconda, already larger than most snakes, was taking in the view. On our approach, she gave us a couple minutes to admire her presence before she retreated to the shadows.
Again, I had experienced an incredible expedition into the jungle. Could it get any better than this? I looked up in the sky to see the largest, brightest, most beautiful full moon I had ever seen. If it does get better than this, I’m looking forward to seeing how.