IN THE AMAZON RAINFOREST, Ecuador
A trip into the jungle was atop my to-do list before I arrived here more than five months ago.
The exploration was more than a chance to see the diverse animals inside this unique habitat. The exploration provided a chance to witness the negative effects of oil exploitation within a national park.
The Cuyabeno reserve was created about 30 years ago to protect the species of plants and animals found in this flooded forest. The islands, rivers and lagoons include towering ceiba trees, mangroves and wildflowers as well as freshwater dolphins, lemon ants, caimans, boars, monkeys, tarantulas, manatees, anacondas and countless insects. The reserve was also created to protect the cultures of indigenous groups – Quichua, Cofan, Secoya, Siona and Shuar – which reside inside the park’s 6,000 square kilometers.
Immediately following its creation, however, Cuyabeno was opened for oil exploitation.
“At least six oil spills were recorded between 1984 and 1989, and others occurred unrecorded,” said the Lonely Planet guidebook. “Many of the contaminants entered Rio Cuyabeno itself.”
Our journey into the jungle began with an overnight bus from Quito to Lago Agrio, a sprawling and unappealing city reliant on the oil industry. The city’s original name was Nuevo Loja, but it has since assumed a Spanish translation of Sour Lake, the city in Texas which was the old home of Texaco.
Our bus arrived here earlier than expected – at about 4 a.m. We hadn’t slept well on the crowded and hot bus that jerked its way down the Andes Mountains and over the ubiquitous (and painfully unnecessary) speed bumps.
We tried to doze off on the street using our backpacks as makeshift beds, but a semi-truck rumbled past. Its heavy load included five, 20-yard industrial pipes presumably destined for the oil manufacturing sites inside Cuyabeno.
We paid a nominal fee to sleep on a hostel’s couches and later met our guide, Guido, at 9 a.m. A van took the three of us on a two-hour ride into the park.
Before we exited Lago Agrio, we saw a monkey play on the roof of a parked van. Around the next corner sat the Petro Ecuador refinery campus. And for the duration of the trip, the trans-Ecuadorian oil pipeline ran parallel to the road.
Other signs of development dotted the roadsides inside the park. Men in white hard hats plotted projects. Acres of trees were recently sliced down. We passed at least four oil stations, including stacks which emitted flames. Road construction here rivaled the progress of anywhere else in the country, and without the populations or traffic to support it. This road was undoubtedly for oil.
At the bridge/trailhead crossing Rio Cuyabeno, we boarded a motorized canoe for the remaining three hours to our lodge. From here, we saw no visible signs of oil exploitation – only natural Amazonia.
In the first 10 minutes, we saw four Squirrel monkeys in the tress on the riverbank. Guido told us that they hang out there to stay out of the reach of eagle claws. There were vibrant blue butterflies around nearly every bend in the river.
Pessa described them as either neon or electric blue.
“It’s the most beautiful blue I’ve every seen,” she said.
Not to be outdone were a pair of school-bus yellow butterflies preoccupied with each other. Were they flirting or feuding?
Eager for another sighting, Pessa spotted a turtle in the river. I didn’t see it, but on her next sighting, the turtle turned out to be nothing more than a twig bobbing in the dark water. I believe her first sighting (wink).
Giddy with the promise of four days immersed in this jungle, Pessa went into her well-crafted and thick-accented Bear Grylls impersonation. She gave a rendition using an example of the dangerous black snakes native to Ecuador.
“They are only this big, but if you don’t watch out, you might die!” she said dryly.
The day’s best animal sighting came next as five large macaws majestically crossed the river.
Another species of animal awaited us at the basic Tarapuyo Lodge – about 40 rowdy Ecuadorian kids. Also present were their parents and a mother-daughter pair, Courtney and Cathy of Colorado. They would be the other half of our group the next day.
Before leaving the lodge, Guido wouldn’t allow us to face the world without the proper makeup.
He applied the orange and red face-paint using the dyed balls inside the shell of a plant called Agate. Like so many things in the jungle, indigenous cultures believed and used these plants for medicinal benefits. Agate was once believed to help fight yellow fever.
I can’t attest to that remedy, but we bought another potion from the Shuar botanical garden in Puyo that works like magic.
A small drop of Sangre de Drago on a pestering mosquito bite – or 10, like I had after the first night in the rainforest – will make the itching stop in seconds and the mark will disappear by the next day. If marketed, this stuff would put Calamine Lotion out of business.
It’s this type of environmental understanding from the indigenous cultures that could be lost forever if we don’t protect places like Cuyabeno.
Moving on … we sped away from the lodge to a remote lagoon with waterlogged trees near its banks. Manatee and piranha swim here. We didn’t see the former, but we caught a few of the latter.
The chance to fish for piranha piqued my interest when we read over itineraries before picking a tour agency and lodge. I was ready to pull one in.
We splashed our rudimentary poles — fishing line tied to bamboo rods — into the calm lagoon water to get the attention of these feisty fish.
Victor, our other guide, led the group with three catches. Guido and Courtney each had one. Cathy nabbed a catfish and Pessa hooked another piranha, but it got away before she could lift it into the boat. I was the only one shutout. Guido and Victor teased me that the women proved themselves to be better hunters than me.
Guido prepared the piranha over a bonfire at the lodge later that evening. He wrapped it in three large green leaves and placed it into the coals, just like the indigenous groups cook it. When the leaves cracked, he knew it was ready. I was surprised at how refreshing these small hand-sized fish truly were. It was a treat, even though I didn’t catch it.
We said ciao to the Colorado chicas and set out on a four-hour hike into the rainforest.
We broke a park rule and ate the lemon ants that reside inside a type of tree here. The taste was bitter, but undoubtedly lemon.
We saw colorful caterpillars, two species of monkeys, a brief sighting of a tarantula and a tree that wraps itself around another tree and kills it. This is one of my favorites: jumping stick. He looks alien.
Guido then stopped suddenly and shushed us. What was it? My imagination went to the most elusive creature here – the jaguar.
Nope. It was nothing more than a sound, Guido said, and we kept walking.
The second time Guido’s ears perked up, he was onto something big. There were sounds of squealing and thumps from animals walking. We inched closer.
“Pig of the jungle,” Guido said with wide eyes. We inched even closer. There they were, a pack of wild boars no more than 40 yards away. Guido said there could be about 80 to 100 in this pack.
We heard the squawking of sporadic fights and hooves pounding the ground.
“It sounded almost like they were vomiting,” Pessa later recalled.
Through the thick undergrowth, I caught a glimpse of them. They were gathered at least four pigs wide. Some of them had protruding tusks and topped 100 pounds. Then, they stampeded away in the other direction.
We went to where they had congregated. They left behind countless hoof prints and a musky stench.
In the afternoon, we visited a Siona “community.” This was nothing more than a remote tourist trap. We made some yucca flatbread in a makeshift space for this purpose only. The community was more than 30 minutes away. We conversed sparingly with the woman that made the bread and a girl who tried to sell us some jewelry. Nothing more. The biggest disappointment of the excursion.
The most revealing thing at the “community” was hearing Guido share our story of seeing the pack of boars. This otherwise quiet and diminutive man shared it again with the Ecuadorians at the lodge. We found the sighting awesome, but his willingness to tell the story again and again, showed us how rare it really was.
Our final day in the rainforest began before the sun showed up. We rose at 5:30 a.m. to be in a hollowed-out wood canoe when the Amazon woke up. I eagerly brought the recorder for the sake of proper documentation. [I, again, wish I could share the sounds, but technical difficulties won’t let me. You must use your imagination.]
The top four sounds were:
1. A chorus of crickets competed for the title of most deafening. It reminded me of the crackle coming from a TV when the cable used to go out. Above the din of Guido paddling, a cacophony of birds also chimed in.
2. This recording set the stage for the white-throated toucan. Although we couldn’t see it from the river, we knew it was close. It’s colorful get-up and talkativeness made me think it was interested in a party.
3. A quartet of parrots diagonally crossed the river, leaving us with a brief glimpse of their emerald bodies and an even higher pitched chirp than the toucan.
4. Back at the lodge came the king birds singing tunes. They traded octaves in what seemed like mating calls. Who wouldn’t want to get with that?
Between calls, Pessa would question Guido about their origins.
“What was that?” she wondered.
Sometimes, his replies weren’t exotic.
“A small chicken,” he once said. Or another time, “oh, a pigeon.”
The perfunctory boat ride back to the trailhead bridge provided the best sightings of the four days.
Midway through the three-hour ride, I spotted the underside of a gray dolphin. Guido cut the motor and we tracked three of them for about 10 minutes. We spotted their tailfins, top fins and body during the 10 or so glimpses. One time, I caught a view of a face.
Later in Quito, the owner of the tour agency we booked through said seeing dolpins are rare, only in August. We were lucky.
Next, we spotted four Saki monkeys high in the trees.
“It just keeps getting better,” I told Pessa.
In goodbye, we coasted underneath a low-hanging tree with a sleeping boa constrictor tangled in its branches.
It really did keep getting better.