Becoming Wild in Amazonia

Adventures connecting with nature, far away from human development.

Thoughts of paddling in Amazonia took a hold of me long ago, in the 1970s, when I was young and strong, spending summers on canoe trips in Algonquin, Quetico and Temagami, imagining that paddling in the Amazon would be an ultimate test of my physical ability.  Fifty years later, I’m here hiking and paddling in this immense landscape, enjoying one of the largest rainforests on earth.  It’s not a test of my abilities, just pure enjoyment of the natural diversity, plus gaining respect and understanding about its communities of inhabitants.

My journey into Amazonia starts in Quito, Ecuador, an ancestral gathering place of the Inca, located high up, 2850 metres (9350 feet), in the Andes mountains.  From here I fly 340 km in a modest sized plane into the jungle, to Coca, an oil-based town in the Oriente, eastern lowlands of Ecuador.  From Coca it’s another 100 km, down the Napo River, in a 20-metre-long motorized canoe, zooming at high speed towards Yasuni National Park.

The Napo, often a km wide, flows through dense unbroken rainforest of leafy trees standing at various heights.  Sporadic taller crowns extend above the rest on huge thick trunks then spread out like an umbrella above the surrounding forest canopy. This northern tributary is part of the mostly Brazilian Amazon watershed basin, which extends 6,400 km from the Andes to its confluence, with the Atlantic Ocean. Riding down the Napo at high speed for two hours is exhilarating as our driver interprets its swift murky waters. We channel-surf, navigating past underwater sandbars, dodging marooned logs and chunks of floating wood debris caught in the current’s turbulent up swellings, while only touching bottom a couple of times. A small cabin at the shoreline, signifies that a native Kichwa village is nearby, set back in the jungle, invisible from the river. 

All at once our boat abruptly slows and turns 180 degrees to head upriver and comes to a stop butting up against a short pier beside the shore.  Two by two, along with ten others, we disembark, walk five hundred metres and load into smaller canoes. We paddle ourselves another hour through a narrow six-metre-wide winding river past extraordinary towering foliage, where occasional breaks in the green growth display unique birds on overhanging branches.  There are groups of yellow-spotted river turtles perched on half submerged logs, and obscured in the muddy waters below, hungry Piranha and Caiman await any chance to feed. 

Soon the river widens, and forest growth opens onto a small lake to reveal our destination, the La Selva Eco Lodge, built on the edge of the jungle at the far end of the lake.  It’s here at this ‘off-the-grid’ hand-built settlement on the edge of

Yasuni National Park that our group of enthusiastic jungle explorers, will dwell for the duration.  I’m assigned to a one room, thatched roof, cozy cabin named the Anaconda Suite, which comprises of a comfortable bedroom, bathroom, and covered deck with hammock, overlooking a tiny lakeside bay partially obscured through green vegetation. It’s a classic setting, surrounded by endless jungle, the music of birds plus a Troop of Howler monkeys roaring nearby from somewhere out in the undergrowth, casts a savage atmosphere of wildness with their dry throaty calls. 

Our adventures in Amazonia, include walks in the untamed rainforest and paddling on small rivers with Ana our Naturalist guide and Henrik our Kichwa tracker. Henrik’s knowledge was honed from generations of sharing by his elders and from his experiences as he’s lived in the rain- forest all his life. The Kichwa are renowned for their knowledge of the Amazonian environment, and they are self-sufficient in that they gather, grow, build, and create everything they need to survive. The rainforest emerges as a chaos of irregularly shaped foliage and is home to many organisms that are not friendly to humans, so being our escort will prove crucial to our learning about the habits and circumstances of creatures who thrive here.  There is a rhythm and rationale for every species, offering protection or sustenance, while being a part of the intricate relationship of predator and prey. There is a natural sharing of assets, like fruit having a purpose as food, seeds getting dispersed by birds and sap that is used as a medicinal aid for pain or disease. For the Kichwa large seeds are dried and strung as beads, and plant fibre once separated, torn, cooked, or beaten to create rope or clothing. Anything practically used by them will recycle back and return to the wild as nutritional value for future generations of forest life.

I’m intrigued by the quantity of wild creatures that thrive here; colorfully plumed birds like the Bitterns, Herons, Kingfishers and Hoatzin, limber Squirrel and Howler monkeys that gather and romp along tree branches, sun worshiping turtles and elusive reptiles; lizards, frogs, giant insects, spiders, and snakes, which are more visible at night. Through our Kichwa tracker and interpreted by our guide Ana, we learn to behold details with intent and observe with wise eyes, to see and understand nature’s relationships. I wonder about flower design, why a small fruit has spikes to look like something unpalatable, or how markings on a tiny creature camouflage it for protection and survival amid its predatory surroundings. It’s astonishing that there is rationale and impact with every subtlety in the rainforest, from the miniscule nectars of tiny fruits which are a nutritiously rich treasure to birds and small creatures, to an insignificant stripe, bright warning colour on a tiny frog or pointed protrusion on a tree that may offer protection or deadly doom to an unwary predator who dares to attack. 

Early one morning we head out to climb the metal stairway built on the side of a giant Kapok tree. The Observation Tower which ascends forty metres up into the treetops of the forest canopy displays expansive Bromeliads (plants that live on host trees) in its upper branches and with binoculars or camera lens, we get closeup views of colourful Macaw, Parakeet and Toucan birds, even a family of Red Howler monkeys.  Another rainforest giant tree I’m in awe of standing beside is the gargantuan moss laden Mahogany tree, which is thought to be hundreds of years old and close to 60 metres high.

Walking single file through the forest, Henrik easily spots a camouflaged lizard nearby and I’m astonished, how this 40 cm long lizard hugging a small branch can blend in with its surroundings. Then, suddenly he bends over and is hurriedly reaching around in the forest floor litter in various directions. He finds a poison dart frog for us to inspect, knowing exactly how to catch and hold it, without touching a poisonous area.  His other display of calculated survival is his demonstration with Soldier ants, allowing a frightful sight, pincers digging into his fingers. Once the pincers attach onto a finger, the body is torn off, leaving a practical use, natural sutures. 

Paddling quiet rivers in Yasuni we focus on staring, looking for birds of prey like the Night Jar, which sits silent and still, perfectly concealed awaiting its next dinner to come into closer proximity before it strikes.  We are entranced watching families of Spider monkeys up in the treetops above us chasing one another along connecting branch highways.  Suddenly we stop, my heart quickens, what has Henrik spotted now?  With binoculars, we gaze deep into the forest thirty meters beyond. We see, tucked in a notch of a shaded hole, in the tree branches, three tiny faces peaking out.  This rare finding is a family of nocturnal Night Monkeys whose contrasting facial markings resemble painted on masks.

The nighttime forest exposes us to a different world. Creatures like frogs, lizards, and giant bugs are everywhere, as they rest in easy sight of my headlamp on soft leafy ends of small branches. The tender shoots offer protection, as they easily sense vibration if a slithering predator snake is climbing nearby, giving warning time to jump away and escape. This is not a fool proof tactic as pencil thin snakes can reach surprisingly far airborne before connecting with something else before they strike with a lightening fast bite.

One mystifying species, the Tarantula spider, is remarkably difficult to find, as you must look for them, rolled up in leaves or tucked away in tight spots. For safety it’s recommended that rainforest explorers wear rubber boots to your knees and don’t poke hands around in dark places where you cannot see.

Amazonia is now real to me and imprinted in my thoughts.  Coming here has been a great privilege that has quenched my curiosity and given me a deeper appreciation and understanding why these lands and waterways should remain wild and undisturbed. Seeing these remarkable creatures reveal their daily lifestyles of play and quest for instinctive survival, I’m mesmerized how the inter connectedness of living organisms here coexist without human intervention.


Author: LivingSpaces

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